With a late-filed amendment before a Senate committee vote, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed to amend his controversial lands bill to remove a provision that would have allowed land and water conservation money to be used for sewer lines and pumps for water supply projects.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government approved SB 1290 after Simpson agreed to revise his original bill to reflect changes agreed to between the House and environmentalists. The bill is a top priority of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consolidate state laws relating to land management and give the agency more flexibility as it attempts to manage the more than 13 million acres of land in the state’s control.
A similar provision, HB 1075, is set for a vote by the full House and was amended last week by its sponsor Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, to remove the provision that allows the state to tap into conservation money to pay for water resource development projects that previously have been paid for with local water management district funds, including bonds.
That provision was vigorously opposed by environmentalists, many of whom argue that DEP was attempting to misuse Amendment 1 land and water conservation funds to pay for infrastructure because Gov. Rick Scott pushed for reducing tax revenues to water management districts so deeply, the districts need to find other sources to pay for projects to keep water safe.
Simpson initially filed an amendment that included the provision to use conservation funds for what is being called the "pumps and pipes" provision but filed a last-minute change that took the language out, thereby silencing the environmental critics.
Caldwell told the Herald/Times that DEP wants the provision because it provides "more flexibility with the money that we have" because of the long list of conservation commitments and infrastructure needs already lining up.
But, "at the end of the day, we took that out because we just couldn't see where that would make it to the end,'' he said.
Environmental groups roundly praised Caldwell for working out an agreement with them and on Wednesday also commended Simpson for removing the provision the language sought by DEP.
"This particular change is really integral to us being comfortable to the bill,'' said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy, which is now neutral on the bill.
Stephanie Kunkel of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said thanked Simpson "for making such an incredible movement forward on some of the issues we brought to you initially."
She and Dave Cullen of the Sierra Club said they continue to have problems with a provision that remains in the bill -- a priority of Caldwell's -- that allows private landowners to take ownership of public land that abuts at least 30 percent of the landowner's property. In exchange, the private owners would agree not to develop the land. Kunkel and Cullen said they fear that state parks could be swapped, limiting instead of expanding public access.
For the last four years, DEP has tried to find ways to reduce the state’s inventory of conservation lands or find ways to commercialize the state’s holdings, but it backed down in the face of public protests. In 2011, for example, the agency unsuccessfully proposed constructing an RV park at Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County and adding campsites to 55 other states parks as a way to add revenue for the state.
In 2013, DEP tried and failed to launch a statewide program to surplus state conservation land and sell it to the highest bidder. And in 2015, the agency proposed leasing a portion of the Myakka River State Park for cattle grazing but withdrew the proposal after public opposition.
Environmentalists view both Caldwell’s bill, and the companion measure by Simpson, as an extension of that effort by DEP.
Penny Walker Bos of the League of Women Voters said they also continue to oppose the bill because it could open the door for state regulators to turn conservation land into logging and cattle grazing and convert state parks into golf courses and hunting.