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Bills make environmentalists howl

Environmentalists were crying foul Wednesday over several proposals moving forward in the final days of the legislative session.

State House members passed a bill that bars people from challenging development proposals that don't directly affect them.

State senators have a budget proposal that critics say robs money from a popular environmental preservation program.

And a bill that could make it considerably more expensive for local communities to restrict billboards is headed to the governor.

Wednesday began with environmental leaders denouncing a Senate plan to divert $150-million in reserves from the Preservation 2000 land buying program and spend the money on public education. Floridians in 1998 overwhelmingly put the land buying program into the state Constitution, and critics of the Senate budget contend that even diverting reserve money from that pot amounts to a sellout.

"Environmental programs make up only 3 percent of the state's annual budget," said Stephanie Culp, lobbyist for the Trust for Public Land. "Land buying programs should not take this big a hit."

It was the latest effort by the Senate to increase spending for education and social services, the subject of a standoff with the House. Supporters of the move say the money otherwise would sit in a bank.

"We're not sacrificing one for the other," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, who supports the move. "We've got to get the money from somewhere."

Gov. Jeb Bush said the Senate action jeopardizes his priority of setting aside a reliable source of money for the Everglades. "I urge the Legislature to reconsider," Bush said.

Later in the day, it was House members who were feeling the wrath of environmentalists, passing a bill, 71-46, to prevent people not directly affected by a development from challenging it. Supporters say it would, for instance, stop a gadfly in the Panhandle from thwarting development in the Tampa Bay area.

Critics say the bill, which has made little progress in the Senate, makes it harder for Floridians to have a say on the environment.

"You're telling the people to "shut up. You no longer have a right to speak,' " complained state Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

Established nonprofit environmental groups registered in Florida could challenge a development if the group had at least 25 members in the county where the development is proposed.

Also Wednesday, lawmakers passed a bill to require local governments to pay "just compensation" to billboard owners forced to remove signs. It also sets up an arbitration system.

Senate sponsor Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, called it "a property rights issue," and noted that 39 other states have similar laws.

The bill exempts local governments involved in litigation with billboard companies before January 2001, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater.

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