This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the great fires in the Everglades. For weeks, flames scorched 500,000 acres there, and waves of smoke swelled over south Florida from the Keys to north of Palm Beach. Ten miles from the coast salt water intruded into Miami's primary water supply. The Washington Post headline said "Drought-Ravaged South Florida Faces an Environmental Disaster."
More than any other event, these fires drove home to Floridians that something was wrong. They were the catalyst for a four-decade effort to protect the Everglades and, more broadly, Florida's land and water.
This anniversary of the fires was celebrated in Tallahassee by legislative and budget decisions which will virtually wipe away those protections and return us to pre-1971 Florida.
Some of the most destructive features are:
Everglades' restoration: The first steps toward restoring the Everglades to as much like its natural state as possible began in 1972 when the first state land and water management laws were enacted and a major land acquisition program funded. In 1983 the state launched the Save Our Everglades initiative. However, it was in 2000 when the federal government joined in a 50/50 marriage with the state that Everglades' restoration took off. Now I fear that marriage is doomed.
Legislation at this session has gutted the laws that have protected the Everglades since the early 1970s. Other legislation restricts the capability of the South Florida Water Management District to be the state's representative in the marriage by shifting decision-making from independent appointed citizens to the Legislature and cutting the district's budget by 25 percent. The specific budget for Everglades' restoration has dropped from $200 million in 2007-2008 to $30 million in the 2012 budget. If Florida is so indifferent, how can we expect a member of Congress from far way to continue spending $200 million a year from a deficit-plagued federal budget? How close are we to the divorce court?
Concurrency has been the means by which projects such as large residential developments and shopping malls, which will impose special burdens for roads, water, sewers and schools on the region in which they are located, will pay a portion of the cost to relieve these burdens. While the local government in which the project is located can require such assessments, the protection that had been afforded to surrounding communities is significantly limited.
Even though Florida is a state where more than 1.5 million homes are now vacant and there is an unprecedented oversupply of commercial, office and industrial properties, another enactment of the Legislature will trash the current requirement that developers show a need for the proposed project and that it is financially feasible.
With regular gas selling for more than $4 in many places in Florida, the Legislature has removed the requirement that new developments be energy efficient.
Citizens beware. The rights of citizens to participate in the process of land and water management are dramatically reduced. Currently the citizen is on notice that twice-a-year changes to the local plan can be considered. Under this legislation alterations can be considered at any meeting. Stunningly, the legislation goes further and prohibits local governments from submitting key planning issues to the people through a referendum.
While all state review of large scale proposals is reduced, in the following instances no state planning oversight is allowed — mining, industrial, hotel/motel and movie theaters — because they have been taken from the list of potential developments of regional impact. This is the result of the most influential lobbyists in Tallahassee.
The current land and water management system in Florida has provided reasonable state oversight for projects that are of genuine concern to a region of Florida or the entire state. The state role has assisted, not hindered, local governments and applicants in creating projects that are good neighbors and contribute positively to Florida's quality. A good example of this is:
As the Tampa Westshore Project was being planned by the developer and reviewed by the city of Tampa, a significant disagreement arose about the amount of traffic the project would generate and the amount of transportation impact fees the developer would be obligated to pay to meet the concurrency requirement. Given the requirements of Florida's growth management laws, a negotiated settlement was reached and the project completed. The Westshore Project is one of the most recognized developments in Florida and one of the largest employment centers in the state. The developers credit the growth management process for contributing to the project's success.
There is a constructive alternative to the debacle awaiting us if this legislation were to go into law. All of the major pieces of the current land and water management system were the result of a thoughtful, citizen-led review of the state of Florida's economy and environment. On three occasions, beginning with the response to the 1971 fire in the Everglades, the governor has appointed such a commission and the Legislature adopted its recommendations because they were reasonable, wise and visionary.
Gov. Rick Scott has an opportunity to follow this model. Veto the damaging legislation, which will soon be on his desk. Appoint a representative group of Floridians to assess the current state of land and water management, its protection for the environment as well as its effect on Florida's economy and job creation. The recommendations of these Floridians will give the Legislature in 2012 a thoughtful basis on which to make decisions that will be most beneficial to Florida's future, not the after-midnight process which produced the ill-considered legislation at this session.
Floridians don't want to go back to the smoke of 1971 or the smoke-filled rooms of the 2011 Legislature. There is a path to avoid that.