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Lawmakers Approve Controversial Permitting Bill

May 5, 2011 - 6:00pm

Lawmakers on Thursday sent to Gov. Rick Scott a controversial proposal that environmentalists say will make it easier for developers to sidestep challenges to development.

The House voted 79-36 on Thursday to approve a bill (HB 993) that was amended by the Senate this week to include a change to state law involving protests in environmental permitting.

Republicans, who supported the proposal, said it removes obstacles to development and will create jobs.

The bill changes current law so that a person or organization challenging a developers environmental permit would have the burden of proving damage to the environment to get the development stopped. Current law puts the burden on the developer to show the growth wouldnt harm the environment.

Were about to change 30 years of environmental law, said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. He believes the proposed law is in violation of the Clean Water Act, which says the developer should have the burden of proof in challenges.

Environmentalists blasted the bill as a complete reversal of a longtime legal precedent that protects citizens over developers. Right now, under current law, a polluter or developer has to demonstrate they wont harm the environment in order to get a permit, said Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper. By weakening the ability of someone to challenge that permit, it removes an incentive to protect the environment, he said.

Environmentalists say challengers to permits are often people who live next-door to a development or area of suspected pollution.

It will have a chilling effect on when challengers come forward, said Janet Bowman with the Nature Conservancy. It is difficult for the average citizen to prove, for instance, that wetlands are being polluted or a new development isnt following the proper hazardous waste disposal process, environmentalists said.

House Democrats objected to the burden of proof changes Thursday, saying the House had voted last Friday to strip out that same provision from a different bill, HB 991. But a last-minute change on Wednesday by the Senate tacked the changes on to a noncontroversial bill on agency rulemaking.

The Senate made the controversial changes at the behest of new Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard, the Orlando Sentinel reported. It caught many lawmakers by surprise, and debate in the Senate was somewhat muted on the topic. The vote in the Senate was 35-3.

By the time the burden of proof change reached the House on Thursday, nearly a week after the original vote on the proposal, most Democrats had figured out the change was in the bill.

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, attempted to change the bill to take out the burden of proof changes again, but the Republican-majority House ruled against him.

Obviously the big players, developers and those folks, had a chance to get votes (in the Senate), Pafford said. Six days is a long time in the Legislature. They were able to turn those votes.

Supporters of the measure said it helps remove impediments to development.

Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said that developers who could bring jobs to the state find their projects stymied by permit challenges from people who sometimes live in other parts of the state.

Other Republicans said the changes to the burden of proof should mirror how the court system works.

Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, said what we have right now is the assumption you are guilty until proven innocent. He said the bill merely switches it so the assumption is innocent until proven guilty.

Environmentalists blasted the last-minute maneuvering that resulted in a controversial provision being tacked on to an unrelated bill and passed in the waning days of the legislative session.

This is a Legislature that is owned lock, stock and barrel by special interests, Draper said.

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