House Bill 703 is not a popular bill in some South Florida counties. But in Martin County, where agriculture interests are akin to estuary green slime, the ruling class puts the bill in a special category of disrepute.
To hear some of them speak,bill sponsor Jimmy Patronis sold out to the devil. In Martin County that would be Big Ag.
These folks take HB 703 personally. They believe the Panama City Republican produced all 14 parts of the proposed legislation -- "an act relating to environmental regulation" -- because landowners suing Martin County told him to.
In a newsletter to county residents called the Martin County Defender, one of the commission majority's disciples threw Patronis in with "the Legislatures lackeys of landowner/business/lobbyists (who) are willing to sacrifice county home rule to enrich their masters."
On the session's first full day of business, HB 703 survived its first reading by a 10-2 vote in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. (See the meeting video here.) And Sen. Wilton Simpson of New Port Richey filed a companion bill in the Senate. Like it or not, this legislation is on its way.
Rep. Patronis gets high marks from local governments and organizations for his inclusive approach -- Martin County excepted. He's no dictator and stakeholders one after the other complimented him for his willingness to listen. In the end, expect this bill to have more tweaks than David Beckham has tattoos. Patronis has met once with the stakeholders -- for example, representatives from cities and counties, the Audubon Society, 1000 Friends, the Florida Farm Bureau -- and says he'll have more such meetings to arrive at as much compromise bill language as possible.
But the goal of HB 703 is to eliminate duplicate regulation. Hydrologists, engineers, wetlands specialists and others within the state claim state standards in place now are more than enough to protect businesses, residents and the environment. Patronis said it costs too much in time, money and frustration to add a local layer of regulation that often comes without scientific justification.
In fact, according to Phil Leary of the Florida Ground Water Association and Alachua County Farm Bureau, 35 percent of the costs in agriculture are due to regulation compliance.
Also at issue in the bill is Section 6, whichprovides for water use permits of up to 30 years for larger developments and up to 50 years for landowners who participate in water storage programs.Martin County, Audubon of Florida and other organizations prefer keeping ag interests on a short leash. "We wouldn't want this to negatively impact the Everglades," said Audubon's Mary Jane Young.
But committee member Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, formerexecutive director of the Miami-Dade County Farm Bureau, says no wonder farmers want to maximize their consumptive use permits: it can cost them millions of dollars to prepare their land for water storage. She said if the state wants them to participate, it has to be worth their while, and as she understands it, not every applicant would be granted a 50-year permit.
Meanwhile, in Martin County two former county commissioners with their own agendas, are whipping up the Martin email drive to kill HB 703.
Donna Melzer, an attorney up to her eyeballs in lawsuits against the county since she was voted out of office in 2000, after one commission term, got the ball rolling in January with a letter to the County Commission."A Bill was filed in Tallahassee this week described as 'bill to kill local planning and environmental protection,'" writes Melzer. Says who? I haven't heard that one except from the Martin County lawyergarchy.
Maggy Hurchalla, author of Martin County's controversial, often-litigious, comprehensive plan rewrites, wrote a letter to county residents urging them to rally against HB 703. "Rep. Jimmy Patronis has introduced a bill which looks like it was designed by the big landowners who are challenging the Martin County Comprehensive Plan. The bill says Martin County cant do what it did. It is retroactive. The basic theme seems to be that local government shouldnt protect its local residents and its local environment."
Florida Statute 163.3162, Agricultural Lands and Practices Act became law in 2004. HB 703 simply clarifies that no regulations after 2004 can be overridden by local law. The 2004 act says this:
"... a county may not exercise any of its powers to adopt any ordinance, resolution, regulation, rule, or policy to prohibit, restrict, regulate, or otherwise limit an activity of a bona fide farm operation on land classified as agricultural land pursuant to s. 193.461, if such activity is regulated through implemented best management practices, interim measures, or regulations developed by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, or a water management district and adopted under chapter 120 as part of a statewide or regional program; or if such activity is expressly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, or the United States Environmental Protection Agency."
Patronis admits the email is rolling in."I don't mind having hundreds of emails from Martin County," he said. "I'm not here to do harm, I'm here to deal with contentious issues."
Oddly,Kate Parmelee, intergovernmental and grants coordinator for Martin County appeared at the March 4 meeting, but when given a chance to speak, didn't elaborate on the county's positions. "Martin County will continue to work" with (Patronis), she said.
I seriously doubt HB 703 is a put-up job by businesses challenging Martin County's draconian comp plan rewrite, as Martin bill-naysayers claim. But I have a feeling it could have been an unintended consequence of those rewrites, particularly because the state Department of Agriculture and the South Florida Water Management District didn't get their day in court with Martin County.
Remember, a three-page Sept. 19 letter to the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) -- the Department of Community Affairs' successor -- from the ag commissioner's general counsel, Robert Williams, ran through large swatches of the comp plan rewrite -- from definition of development to wetlands regulation to agricultural classification -- saying they failed to comply with state statutes. If the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services put a bug in Patronis' ear, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.
Remember, too, the people in power in Martin County today -- the people who serve on the County Commission right now -- are the people who were suing the county in 2009, and who amended the comp plan with the cavalier attitude that "we're right, you're wrong, if they sue, so what -- we'll win."
Melzer's letter says, "The bill proposes to STOP our requiring 4 votes for critical changes,making it easier to weaken our river protections,making it easier to end our four (4) story building height,making it easier to gut our urban boundary -- cost us our conservative fiscal planning."
The end of the supermajority vote on the County Commission -- four out of five votes -- isn't a bad idea. Why should one side have to spot the other 20 points in what should be a fair, democratic vote? And does anyone really think it's going to take four votes to hold onto a sacred cornerstone of the "Martin County difference" -- the four-story height limit, for example?
I remember all the years I lived in Martin County -- most of us wanted more ag land, not less. We liked that it kept us green. We liked being part of the food chain. We used to bemoan the loss of farmland to development. Now Martin persecutes the farmers it has left, tells the world farmers are responsible for their polluted rivers. I guess I don't get it.
I like what Rep. Edwards said at the conclusion of the March 4 meeting: "I realize we have to maintain a difficult balance going forward on this bill. But remember, farms didn't move to cities, cities moved to farms."
Edwards said every year the Legislature should be having this conversation with local governments: "Where are our state laws falling short in protecting our cities? We're happy to work with you," she told Patronis and stakeholders like Martin.
Give HB 703 a chance. It's a work in progress.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.