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Session bittersweet for environmentalists

For environmentalists working the Florida Legislature, victory is relative.

Success in recent years usually meant fending off assaults on environmental laws. This year, it meant swallowing a proposal widely bashed as anti-environment to get a stable source of money for Everglades restoration.

Lawmakers authorized borrowing up to $100-million a year to pay for Everglades cleanup, one of the biggest environmental priorities this year. But they added a controversial amendment making it harder for the average person to fight development.

It was was a prime example of how difficult progress is on environmental protection, activists say.

"It's analogous to having every finger on your hand plugging holes in the dike. While you're holding back the dike, you can't fix what's really broken," said Pat Rose, president of the Save the Manatee Club.

His club, with help from Jimmy Buffett, mobilized hundreds of Floridians to oppose a proposal to weaken Manatee protections. The result: a compromise with boating groups that pleased both sides.

Lawmakers also passed a much-touted growth management bill linking school capacity to new development. It was a priority of Gov. Jeb Bush, but is far weaker than what he wanted last year.

Last year's version essentially required local communities to reject development in crowded school districts, according to homebuilder lobbyists. Developers did not oppose this year's bill, which merely requires that local governments weigh school capacity before approving development.

Even that nearly died in a dispute over taxes. It passed only after senators agreed to strip out a provision allowing local governments to raise sales taxes for schools without a referendum.

It was a baby step, said Charles Pattison, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a growth management watchdog.

"It's something you can use in a campaign to talk about things you did to help growth management," Pattison said. "They're not doing anything that's really hurtful, and they aren't doing anything that's really helpful."

Legislators also approved a marina planned by the rich and powerful St. Joe Co. that had been blocked by the Franklin County Commission.

Lawmakers passed another bill that some environmentalists viewed as a direct assault on growth management. It significantly waters down requirements that toll roads be economically feasible. The new rules would make it easier to build speculative roads such as the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus County.

Charles Lee of Florida Audubon called it "the beginning of the end of meaningful growth management in Florida." It puts the state in the road speculation business, he said, to "build roads to nowhere to open people's property up to development."

Still in limbo is a Senate plan to shift $150-million in land preservation funds to schools and other needs. The proposal will be addressed during a special session on the budget.

Eric Draper of Audubon gives the Legislature a C-. "On the one bill that we environmentalists said we needed to get passed _ the Everglades spending bill _ we got done," he said. "And a lot of the other stuff that we were on the defensive with, we blunted."