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Senate bill would cut back on environmental permitting process

TALLAHASSEE — A jobs bill being considered by the Legislature includes several little-noticed provisions for streamlining environmental regulations to the point where some development projects of up to 40 acres wouldn't need state or local permits at all.

The 129-page Jobs for Florida bill, slated for a Senate vote Thursday after a single committee hearing, also could eliminate local regulations on wetlands protection and drainage, and give local and state regulators less time than ever to review development plans.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said those provisions were related to creating jobs in the state's stagnant construction industry by cutting back government red tape.

"What we're trying to do is speed up the process so we can get people back to work," said Bennett, an electrical contractor.

Diana Ferguson, staff attorney for the Florida Association of Counties, predicted that the people who will get the most work out of the bill are lawyers. She warned that it would generate lots of lawsuits and put local governments at risk of violating federal pollution laws.

She also questioned why such a large change in government policy was slipped into an unrelated bill with little chance for opponents to question its provisions.

"It's terrible," agreed Rick Tschantz, staff attorney for Hills­borough County's Environmental Protection Commission.

The bill (SB 1752), which was introduced Feb. 28, also addresses such issues as sales taxes on boats and the purchase of industrial machinery. It includes tax breaks that could add up to $187 million for space, high-tech and film industries. It was approved by the Policy & Steering Committee on Ways and Means last week by a vote of 22-2, then shipped to the full Senate.

Despite the concerns expressed by local governments and environmental groups such as Audubon of Florida, "nothing in this bill repeals any local or state environmental protection," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, the bill's original sponsor. "Rather, the bill simply seeks to speed up the process of review, so that … government doesn't stand in the way."

One provision in the bill says any project involving up to 40 acres would no longer need any local or state environmental permits, as long as the plans were signed and sealed by a professional engineer.

"A lot of subdivisions and strip shopping centers would fall under that" 40-acre limit, Tschantz said. But bill supporter Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, a contractor, said it just means "the governmental entities are honoring the professionalism of those who submit the plans."

Another section says any permit must be approved or denied within 30 days or it will be automatically issued — and no stopping the clock to ask the applicant for more information, either. That's likely to mean every permit will get an automatic yes, which "would mean choking up the system with unintended administrative challenges with those permits," warned Ernie Barnett, a lobbyist for the South Florida Water Management District.

When state Department of Environmental Protection officials said no one could give the thousands of permit applications they receive a fair review in such a short time, Bennett was unsympathetic. If the DEP can't review every permit in less than a month, he said, "we will be looking for different people to run the DEP."

The bill also says any county that wants to issue its own wetland permits rather than relying solely on the state — as Hillsborough County does — must take over all of the state's permitting duties by 2011, or stop doing any permitting at all.

Provisions like that "shouldn't all be in this bill," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who voted against the bill in committee. "This bill should be focused on jobs. There are so many things in here. It's on such a fast track that I fear we are going to be doing something detrimental to the state."

Although there is a House version, HB 1509 does not contain similar language about environmental permits.

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

Senate bill would cut back on environmental permitting process 03/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 12:02am]
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