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Legislators envision less regulation as salve for Florida's economy

Florida legislative leaders want to make it easier to get permits to destroy wetlands, tap the water supply and wipe out endangered species habitat, all in the interest of building houses, stores and offices.

They say streamlining the permitting process will get the economy moving again.

"We've got to get permits going and flowing," said Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers. "We need to make some incentives for people to revitalize our economy."

But opponents, ranging from Audubon of Florida to the Florida League of Cities, say making permits easier to get ultimately would hurt the economy and the environment.

State officials estimate more than 300,000 Florida houses are vacant. Why add more, asked Audubon's Eric Draper.

"We do not believe the current environmental regulatory structure is the root cause of our economic problems," agreed Kurt Spitzer, who lobbies for the Florida Stormwater Association. "The problem with the Florida economy is declining home prices and tightening credit."

The groups pushing for looser permitting include such politically powerful entities as Associated Industries, the Florida Home Builders Association and the Association of Florida Community Developers.

"We need to be creating conducive conditions for more growth," said Frank Matthews, who lobbies for the builders and developers. "You know what the Florida economy is based on. It's an article of faith that those houses will one day be occupied. (The recession) is not going to last forever."

Associated Industries president Barney Bishop has been passing out a booklet headlined "Economic Stimulus Package 2.0." It prioritizes something called "Regulatory Relief," which says, "Policymakers must look at reductions in regulatory red tape as a way to stimulate business activity.''

Bishop pointed to impact fees that local governments charge developers to help pay for roads, schools, sewer lines and other public facilities for new residents. He suggested a temporary suspension of those fees, as well as easing the challenge to such fees in the future.

Senate Bill 630, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would block local governments from collecting impact fees on new development through 2012. Another Bennett bill, Senate Bill 360, calls for eliminating most state growth-management review of big, new developments proposed for Hillsborough County and a host of other cities and counties around Florida.

The home builders, meanwhile, want to reduce the number of agencies that have a say on development permits. Matthews called it "less overlap, less duplication."

Take endangered species habitat, he said. Right now a federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Widlife Service, as well as the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and various local governments all get to comment on permits regarding destruction of that habitat.

"We like the idea of having a single regulatory body in charge of a single subject matter," he said.

The same goes for Florida's wetlands. Wiping out wetlands requires a permit from the state that says the project won't harm water quality, and another from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that says it's in the public interest under the Clean Water Act.

However, those agencies rarely reject a permit, which is why Florida lost an estimated 84,000 acres of wetlands to houses, stores, roads and parking lots between 1990 and 2003, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery.

The state's wetlands permitting criteria have failed to halt pollution from fertilizer-laden stormwater runoff, which has spurred toxic algae blooms in the St. Johns River and other waterways. Last month U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials announced they would impose new, tougher runoff restrictions because the state's criteria weren't working.

Some counties such as Hillsborough have their own wetland rules that are more stringent than the state or federal regulations. The builders have tried before to pre-empt those local rules.

"We're hoping we can move the ball forward a little more," Matthews said.

Williams said she was charged with pushing regulatory reform by former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

Sansom's ties to a Panhandle developer and a community college led to a grand jury investigation and his ouster from that post this month. But Williams said she and other leaders are still pursuing a rollback in regulations.

Williams, an engineer who has worked for some of Florida's biggest developers, chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee, which has a scheduled workshop today. The agenda lists one item for the two-hour meeting: "Workshop on streamlined permitting issues."

Williams said she wants to hear other people's ideas for speeding up permits, but she has a few of her own. For one thing, she said, she'd like to see the state water managers make it easier to get permits to take large quantities of water for new development.

Williams said she would also like to see the state wetlands permitting process cut in half. State law now requires approval or rejection of a permit within 90 days or the permit is automatically approved. She suggested cutting that to 45 days. A Times analysis of state permits found that in 2003 the average processing time was 44 days.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Legislators envision less regulation as salve for Florida's economy 02/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2:57pm]
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