February 12, 2019

DeSantis, Scott and Rubio ask Trump for $200 million for Everglades projects

 

Tamiami bridge construction

Ever since he started his term as Florida’s most powerful leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis has held true to his stance on the environment, particularly his commitment to the Everglades.

The self-titled “Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican” sent a letter to President Donald Trump Monday, asking for $200 million to fast-track construction for Everglades restoration.

The letter, co-signed by U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, asks that the president include the money in his annual budget request to fulfill “long overdue federal commitments to restore the Everglades.”

“Florida’s recent struggles with harmful algal blooms have raised the stakes for accelerated progress on Everglades restoration,” the letter said. “Enhanced federal funding to complement years of historic state funding levels would fast-track design and construction [...] to divert and clean Lake Okeechobee releases and increase water deliveries to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay/”

DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority, made a $625 million commitment to the environment in his annual budget proposal, representing a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — a $1 billion increase from past spending.

About half the spending — a record $360 million — would go to Everglades projects, speeding up a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of Lake Okeechobee and remove almost 200,000 pounds of discharged phosphorus per year — a major source of nutrient pollution.

The request for federal money would specifically go toward the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir. They would also advance construction of water storage and treatment facilities planned for the Caloosahatchee River West Basin Storage Reservoir and Indian River Lagoon-South projects, in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of algal blooms.

The state budget proposal makes a commitment to the cause, providing $25 million to treat the blooms and red tide plaguing the state’s water supply.

"Are we spending money now in a way we can look back and say 'it's a good thing they really tackled that?'" he said at a press conference announcing his budget. "With the water, people want us to tackle that and I'm serious and get it done."

January 23, 2019

Right to grow veggies in the front yard takes root in the House

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Tom Carroll and Hermine Ricketts stand in front of their home at 53 NE 106th St., Miami Shores, Florida, in November 2013, when the couple maintained a front-yard vegetable garden. Walter Michot Miami Herald file

The House tended to the “vegetable garden bill” for the first time Wednesday, as the bill made it through the first of three stops on its way through the Legislature.

Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff presented her amended version of bill to the House Local, Federal and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, which prohibits a county or municipality from regulating vegetable, fruit and herb gardens on residential properties and voids any existing ordinance of that nature.

The bill passed with dozens of questions, but only one “no vote.”

At the beginning of the month, the Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed the measure, which was first filed by Sen. Rob Bradley. The Senate passed the Fleming Island Republican’s bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.

The vegetable garden proposal stems from a legal dispute about a Miami Shores ordinance that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Village residents Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll kept a garden, and were charged $50 in daily fines.

They eventually had to dig up their 17-year-old garden, which they kept because their backyard didn’t get enough sun to support their beets, kale, tomatoes and Asian cabbage. The couple sued, and in November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that they do not have the right to keep a vegetable garden in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.

“They were trying to have a healthier living situation and provide their family with vegetable and fruits,” Fetterhoff said. “This is a property rights issue. It’s not a home rule issue.”

The DeLand Republican added that limitations also curb possibilities for reducing food deserts, supporting the long-suffering bee community and teaching children about how vegetables grow.

The bill does not include rules set by homeowners associations and does not affect other properties like schools and churches.

The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills is the Florida League of Cities. The group’s legislative counsel, David Cruz, argues that each city in Florida is unique, and much of the unique aesthetic is brought about through code enforcement. That’s why Coral Gables looks different from Perry, Florida, he said.

“There’s the ability at the local level to come up with solutions,” he said. “We’re not against vegetable gardens. Our members are not against vegetable gardens. But local solution could be crafted.”

Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.

“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani was the only member of the subcommittee to vote down on the bill. Home rule is her “north star,” she said, and the smallest level of government understands their community best.

“We worked together at the local level to pass an ordinance that did the people good,” the Orlando Democrat said. “City officials and county officials should bring this up at town halls, on Facebook, talk to their constituents. If there’s a rumbling that folks want this, make it happen on a local level.

She said she would support a bill with amendments that provide clarity on what constitutes a vegetable garden and give local power to defining its size and aesthetic.

“I think the legislature can do its part to help smooth the process out,” she said. “But does it have to rip away ordinances that are already in place across 67 counties? That’s something I don’t subscribe to.”

Fetterhoff said she plans to keep working on the bill as it moves through the process, but fundamentally believes the vegetable garden restrictions in places like Miami Shores step on citizens’ constitutional rights.

“I really feel that private property rights need to be protected,” she said. “When cities start to step on those rights, then we need to step up for the citizens of Florida.”

The bill will be heard in the House Commerce Committee and State Affairs Committee, but the dates have not yet been set. 

January 11, 2019

Does Gov. DeSantis believe in climate change?

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At a press conference Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters on topics ranging from his latest appointments to the South Florida Water Management District to Thursday's robust environmental policy addressed in an executive order.

The newly minted governor addressed each question fully but when it came to climate change, he danced around his words. DeSantis angered environmentalists on the campaign trail after he repeatedly dismissed climate change as a real threat.

"We put in the executive over that as climate changes, as our environment changes, as water rises in places like South Florida and there’s increased flooding, we want to make sure that we’re taking the steps that we can to combat that," he said.

DeSantis then referred to the part of the executive order that establishes a resiliency office to address climate impacts.

"To me, I’m not as concerned about what is the sole cause. If you have water in the streets, you have to find a way to combat that," he said. "We’re going to work to do that and I think this office will be able to coordinate a thoughtful response."

At the end of the press conference, a reporter asked if the governor believes the scientists who say humans cause climate change.

DeSantis' response?

“Next question.”

January 09, 2019

FAU researcher to Senators: Address septic systems over Everglades reservoir

Labelle algae

Should addressing Florida’s septic systems take precedence in addressing water quality issues?

A presentation made to the Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee told lawmakers “yes.”

Brian Lapointe, a researcher from Florida Atlantic University presented for nearly an hour to the committee Wednesday, explaining how septic systems provide primary treatment and are not designed to remove nutrients, bacteria, viruses or pharmaceuticals.

After a long presentation of historical data and a video funded by the Florida Chamber (which initially opposed the Everglades reservoir), Lapointe made the point that a group within the Department of Environmental Protection needs to build a plan to combat septic systems from dumping huge nutrient loads into the waterways.

Lapointe said the Everglades reservoir is “a distraction”  from the real problem of septic tanks, and added that curtailing toxic blue-green algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers by sending Lake Okeechobee water south is a bad decision.

“We need a Manhattan Project,” he said. “We need to go to war against blue-green algae. We have to build a state master plan.”

Sen. Ben Albritton, a citrus grower, agreed with Lapointe and blamed newspapers for spreading “misinformation” about how the blooms spread and grow. The Wauchula Republican said farmers are falsely blamed for contaminating the water, and that the public needs to understand the real truth.

“It seems to me that this septic system problem is a bigger and bigger piece of the pie of where the nitrogen is coming from,” he said.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez expressed concern about his native South Florida, and how it’s more important to send higher quality than a higher quantity of water south to the Everglades from the lake.

But Lapoint said it cleaning water “doesn’t make sense.”

“We have to protect Lake O,” he said. “We have to focus on the source of the water, clean it there and store it there. That’s common sense to me.”

Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida, called Lapointe’s presentation “completely disingenuous.”

She pointed out how his charts that suggest water flows have increased to the Everglades over time start in the 1940s, which is after the Everglades were drained. She also said the presentation didn’t show how little water the Everglades is getting in dry season flows, which is when the most damage occurs. 

Wraithmell also added that she was “flummoxed” by the idea of blaming septic systems for the majority of nutrient dumps.

“There is no smoking gun for our water quality issues and no silver bullet,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because while it’s part of the science, it’s not all of the science, and for decision-makers to make good decisions, they need all the information."

December 11, 2018

3,400+ Floridians ask DeSantis to address climate change as governor

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By Alex Harris, Miami Herald Staff

Despite the fact that Florida is the most vulnerable state in the nation to climate change, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis has shied away from discussing the issue or his plans to address it.

On Tuesday morning, environmental groups delivered DeSantis a petition with more than 3,400 signatures asking him to acknowledge the threat and become “the Governor who saved our state.”

“This is a nonpartisan issue that affects all Floridians. The Governor-elect has no choice but to make climate action a top priority. We are running out of time,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said in a statement.

DeSantis did not specifically detail his potential plans for climate action, but said in a statement:
 
“The Governor-elect has always made clear he will take on the issues facing our state head-on. That includes fighting for clean water, protecting Florida’s coastlines and conserving our natural environment.”

In previous press statements, the Governor-elect has said he is unclear on the cause of climate change (the majority of scientists say it’s from fossil fuels burned by humans), although he sees the effects and wants to address them.

“The sea rise may be because of human activity and the changing climate, maybe it is not, I do not know,” he told Miami Herald news partner CBS4. “What I do know is I see the sea rising. I see the increase in flooding in South Florida. I think you would be a fool to not consider that is an issue we need to address.”

In the letter, co-signed by Miami’s CLEO Institute, Environment Florida and the Sierra Club, petitioners asked DeSantis to help Florida transition to renewable energy, protect the state’s waterways, charge polluters and institute a “Florida Future Fund” to pay for resilient infrastructure.

November 28, 2018

Democrats and Republicans want to tax pollution — and give the money back to you

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@alextdaugherty

President Donald Trump said “I don’t see” the dangers of climate change that were included in a report released by his own administration. Voters in Democratic-controlled Washington state rejected a tax on carbon at the polls earlier this month. And a host of climate-minded Republicans, including Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelolost reelection and won’t be returning to Congress next year.

But a group of lawmakers on both sides see a politically palatable way to tax pollution: give the money collected from polluters back to every American in the form of a dividend.

That’s the big idea behind the latest piece of climate change legislation proposed by Florida Democrats Ted Deutch and Charlie Crist and Florida Republican Francis Rooney. The three House members were part of a five-member group that unveiled the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act on Wednesday, a sweeping bill that would tax carbon emissions and return the money raised by the tax to everyone.

“The goal was to craft a climate proposal that will be a huge leap forward in the way America responds to climate change,” Deutch said. “In South Florida, climate change is not a political issue. Our hope is with the introduction of the legislation that Congress shows that it can understand that as well.”

The carbon tax introduced Wednesday is unlikely to become law this Congress, because all bills that aren’t passed and signed by the president in the next month will expire. But the group of lawmakers see the bill’s introduction as a starting point for climate change discussions in the coming Congress, where Democrats will control the House while Republicans control the Senate and the White House.

More here.

July 26, 2018

Can lowering Lake O stop toxic algae flows? The Trump administration wants to find out

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Brian Mast crashed the party.

The first-term Republican congressman, who represents a Treasure Coast district decimated by toxic blue-green algae, wasn’t scheduled to speak at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s first meeting since Donald Trump became president.

But as Mast emerged in the back of the auditorium, assistant Secretary of the Interior Susan Combs stopped a scheduled question-and-answer session with Army Corps officials to let the congressman question some of the officials in attendance.

His most pressing concern? Getting government officials to lower Lake Okeechobee water levels in the dry season so the lake has more capacity during the wetter summer months, decreasing the chances of algae-ridden water ending up in canals and rivers on Florida’s east and west coasts.

“This is the issue that’s at the crux of my community, the fact that water is being held on Lake Okeechobee, not just as it relates to risk management but as it relates to the benefit of a number of other entities to the detriment of an epicenter of population,” Mast said. “I think this issue needs to be dealt with in the short term as we wait for everything in this integrated delivery schedule to come to fruition. This is an emergency situation in an epicenter of human population.”

South Florida Water Management District Director Ernie Marks and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James were unable to estimate a minimum water level for Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

“I don’t have an exact number for you,” Marks said. “I can tell you that there are several entities that rely on that water. We do focus on making sure that the tribes, the lower east coast get the water that they need to support the populations in those areas.”

“Which is to the detriment of communities that don’t need the water when it comes to the time of the wet season, which we’re in right now,” Mast replied.

The exchange between Mast and Marks highlights the tension between competing interests that have different immediate needs from Florida’s largest lake. Residents along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers are on the verge of an economic recession due to the algae flows, according to Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane.

“I’ve been here for 15 years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen this condition,” Ruane said. “We’re like Goldilocks: we need water during the dry season but we don’t water during the wet season. Right now, we’re have a situation where this is having a compound effect on the economy.”

Read more here.

July 19, 2018

Republicans scoff at a carbon tax as Curbelo unveils his own climate-change plan

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@alextdaugherty

Carlos Curbelo’s latest effort to shift the climate change debate within the Republican Party has a long way to go.

As the Miami Republican prepares to officially unveil a sweeping carbon tax bill on Monday that would provide $700 billion for infrastructure by taxing coal and natural gas emissions, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted for a resolution on Thursday expressing that a potential tax on carbon emissions would be detrimental to the U.S. economy.

Only six of 236 Republicans voted against the resolution, including Curbelo and retiring Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Curbelo argued that the resolution’s language was correct in that a carbon tax on its own would hurt the economy, but that a carbon tax paired with other ideas would help it.

“When you ask this question in a vacuum, is any tax detrimental to economic growth? It’s usually going to be yes,” Curbelo said. “But when you put it in context and you show how [a carbon tax] can be a component of a broader policy that is focused on winning the future, then it makes a whole lot more sense.”

Curbelo’s massive bill would repeal the federal gas tax and instead tax fossil fuels at the source. In exchange, the bill would enact a moratorium on certain environmental regulations if lower carbon emissions are met.

“Next week, you’ll see major legislation authored by a Republican and cosponsored by other Republicans to kind of show a good solution that... takes into account the cost of carbon emissions,” Curbelo said. “We wanted to make it as fair as possible and that’s why we repeal the gas tax. This is not about punishing consumers or punishing producers, it’s about making sure that we can hand off a clean, healthy planet to future generations while being sensitive to economic realities.”

But the political reality is that his bill is likely going nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress with Donald Trump in the White House. Curbelo acknowledged that the bill, which he has been working on since last year, is about bringing different sides of the debate together and changing the conversation on climate change.

Curbelo’s district, which stretches from West Dade to Key West, includes low-lying territory that makes it one of the most vulnerable in the country when it comes to the effects of climate change. It’s also the most vulnerable for Republicans politically, at least on paper: Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by more than 16 points in 2016, though Curbelo won reelection over former Democratic congressman Joe Garcia by over 11 points last cycle.

Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent in November, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accused him of political opportunism, noting that he voted in favor of the anti-carbon tax resolution in 2016 along with every other Republican in Congress.

“Just two years ago, Congressman Curbelo opposed a carbon tax and voted with his party to declare that it would supposedly harm American families,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “But now that he’s running against someone who has actively worked to fight climate change in our community, he wants us to believe he changed his mind.”

Read more here.

February 28, 2018

Environmental group downgrades Carlos Curbelo’s climate change record

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@alextdaugherty

Carlos Curbelo’s climate-change record took a step down in 2017 in the eyes of one influential environmental group, as the Miami Republican gears up for a reelection bid in a Miami-to-Key West district that is still recovering from Hurricane Irma and dealing with the effects of sea level rise.

The League of Conservation Voters released its 2017 scorecard on Tuesday, and Curbelo, who had the best score among House Republicans currently in Congress on the 2016 scorecard, now ranks tied for 13th among House Republicans. Curbelo had a 53 percent rating for his votes during 2016, and now has a 23 percent rating for his votes last year.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Curbelo said when asked about his rating. “I don’t follow NRA ratings, chamber ratings, League of Conservation Voters ratings. I just try to do the right thing on every vote and I usually end up finding out about my scores later come campaign season.”

Part of Curbelo’s drop can be attributed to Hurricane Irma, as he missed a series of votes while dealing with the hurricane in September. The eight missed votes due to the hurricane count against him on the LCV’s scorecard.

But even if he received a 100 percent score on his missed votes Curbelo would still have a 49 percent rating, which is lower than his 2016 mark. The downgrade comes after a year in which Curbelo expressed pro-environment positions, like opposing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, while also voting for bills like the Republican tax plan that included a measure allowing oil exploration in a portion of Alaska’s North Slope.

Curbelo’s office said he would have voted for the LCV-favored position on six of the nine votes he missed in 2017, meaning his rating would have been 40 percent instead of 23 percent.

The LCV said it would like to see more legislative work from Curbelo’s Climate Solutions Caucus, a group founded by Curbelo and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, that is comprised of lawmakers from both parties who are concerned about the impacts of climate change.

“Environmental votes weren’t always as partisan as they’ve become today,” LCV press secretary Alyssa Roberts said. “We would love to see higher scores from Republicans, and appreciate the Climate Solutions Caucus as a step to build bipartisan support, but the urgency of the climate crisis requires action, not just talk.”

Curbelo said the LCV is a partisan organization whose primary concern is getting Democrats to Washington, and that scorecards like theirs are “all subjective... designed to yield a certain score.”

Read more here.

November 15, 2017

Martin County agrees to pay $12 million for shielding and destroying public records

Everglades@MaryEllenKlas

Circumventing Florida's public records law, and destroying public documents, has cost Martin County commissioners more than $12 million -- and the toll keeps rising. 

The commission on Tuesday agreed to a $12 million payout to Lake Point, a rock quarry company that has plans to become a water company, sued the county for breach of contract and for violating the state's Sunshine Law.

The agreement will put an end to a four-year legal dispute but not the end of the county's woes. A grand jury is investigating allegations that at least one county commissioner destroyed records relating to the case, which could draw criminal penalties. 

The county also agreed to buy 300 acres of land from Lake Point, refund environmental surcharge and impact fees, and grant a permit for an onsite cement plan. It also agreed to issue an apology letter.

In the letter, released on Tuesday, the commissioners apologized to Lake Point, "its principals and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deed of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point." It also admitted that it needed "to improve its public records practice" particularly as it related to using private emails for public purposes.  Download 17-11-13 Settlement Agreement (All pages) (1)

"We now know that the use of private e-mail accounts by certain County commissioners had become too commonplace, resulting in a lack of the transparency and accountability that the public rightly expects from its government, and that is required by law,'' the letter states. "We have addressed these public records problems through new policy and practices, by which we hope to restore the public’s trust in how Martin County transacts its public affairs."

It's a dramatic admission for a county that spent two years denying the existence of public records, until a court ordered them released, and it is the second settlement agreed to by the commission this year.

A a court-appointed arbitrator in February concluded the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate with former Martin County Commissioner and environmental advocate Maggy Hurchalla. The court found that “certain commissioners failed to take public records requests seriously.”

The county agreed to pay more than $371,800 in attorneys’ fees at the time, and to establish a new policy for how to handle public business on private email accounts.

The Lake Point venture began as a public-private partnership that would allow Lake Point’s owners to operate a for-profit rockpit to mine and sell aggregate — a mixture of minerals —for construction projects. In exchange, Lake Point would donate the 2,200-acre property to the district, which would use it to divert water from Lake Okeechobee or the C-44 Canal to avoid discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary.

The water on the land, which former owners had used to grow sugarcane, would be treated and then sent south into Florida Bay. Lake Point argued the agreement with the district gave it the right to transport and supply water; the company wanted to sell water to Palm Beach County. Martin County countered that Lake Point was not allowed to conduct a revenue-generating public water-supply project on the property.

The county canceled the contract in late 2012, after Hurchalla urged county commissioners to reject it, claiming it could destroy as much as 60 acres of wetlands. Lake Point countered that Hurchalla’s claims were false, and sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.

Emails discovered in the case revealed that more than one commissioner used personal email accounts to conduct public business, and Lake Point sued. 

In March 2016, Hurchalla produced emails that the county had denied existed for two years. They showed that she had been engaged in discussions with former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding about canceling the contract and appeared to coach Scott to “limit the discussion” and cancel the contract. 

The court-appointed arbitrator concluded that County Commissioner Sarah Heard scrubbed information and altered public records, after she claimed her private Yahoo! account was hacked. Now, a grand jury is reviewing those developments. 

The county commission voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with only Heard voting no. 

County Commissioner Ed Ciampi called it "a dark day in Martin County."

Commission Chair Doug Smith called the need for the settlement "reckless,'' according to TC Palm. "We are borrowing money to dig our way out of a hole," he said, adding that the county could have built two fire stations with the money spent on the settlement.

Heard, however, maintained she had done nothing wrong.

"This is the most alarming proposal I've ever seen put before any board,'' she said, according to TC Palm. "We didn't do anything wrong. This is an unveiled assault on opposition, on criticism. It's meant to vanquish opposition and critics, to muzzle the public and critical public officials."

Related: Martin County slapped with big public records fine