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Senate revives language to limit public challenges to enviro permits

Environmentalists last week thought they had succeeded in killing a controversial proposal to make it more difficult for the public to challenge development and environmental permits but, at the urging of the Scott administration, the Senate revived it Wednesday.

The language was attached to a noncontroversial rulemaking bill by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, passed by the Senate 35-3 and now must be approved by the House. It effectively shifts the burden of proof to those who challenge state permits to show that the development could harm, rather than require the developer to prove that the development will not harm.

Environmentalists believe the approach dramatically reverses years of state law and lower the threshold for protecting environmental resources by hamstringing opposition.

 “This changes decades of legal precedent,’’ said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. “It will make it more difficult for citizens to ensure a thorough review of environmental impact.”

Rich unsuccessfully attempted to stop Bennett’s amendment but the effort was voted down.
Bennett, a developer, said that current law “has backed up some of these permits for two and three years,’’ he said. “Any person from the Keys can challenge somebody from the Panhandle and not have any burden of proof, so what these companies do is move to Georgia…They cannot deal with our lengthy process.”

The amendment to SB 1382 was amended out of the HB 991  on Friday after environmentalists publicly denounced the bill as one of the worst bill in decades.

Rich said that Georgia “doesn’t have to worry about it because Georgia doesn’t have any water” and added: “We need to protect our resources.”

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, warned that the measure has the potential to erase years of environmental protections.

“In an effort to create jobs, in an effort to break down barriers to development, we have very quickly – in one legislative session – undone an awful lot of environmental protections,’’ she said. “We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars restoring water bodies,” she said, that could have been avoided if the state had “taken precautions.”

Bennett said the while he may have been sympathetic to that argument in the past, he was asked to pursue the issue at the request of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard “and they’re in charge,’’ he said.

Said Eric Draper, director of Audubon of Florida: "It's disappointing when the Department of Environmental Protection lines up with the polluters to keep citizens from exercising their rights."