Bush torn over Everglades bill
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- On the one hand, Gov. Jeb Bush wants to sign a bill this week that would pay for a billion-dollar public works project in the Everglades.
On the other, he's hearing from thousands of environmentalists, including a new Florida group called Republicans for Environmental Protection, who want him to veto it. They say it is tainted by an amendment that favors developers and limits an ordinary citizen's right to challenge damaging projects all over the state.
Bush has until Thursday to decide whether to veto the bill or sign it into law.
"But for this, I could tell you automatically that I would sign the bill into law," Bush said last week.
With e-mails pouring into his office urging a veto, Bush asked his staff for a list of development permits challenged under current law.
"There's a lot of varying opinions on what this impact is," Bush said.
Environmentalists aren't the only ones opposing the change in so-called citizen standing. Attorney General Bob Butterworth opposes the bill, and so do six of the seven candidates running for attorney general. Only Republican candidate Tom Warner supports the bill because he says the Everglades portion is too important.
At issue is the 1971 Environmental Protection Act. Lawmakers gave ordinary citizens the right to challenge developers and state agencies. The theory is that all citizens can file a challenge, even if the project is miles away, because everyone has a stake in protecting Florida's environment.
The measure sitting on Bush's desk would change that. A provision added by incoming Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, would allow only people who can prove they are personally affected by a project to file a challenge. So, for example, a concerned citizen in Tampa who wants to stop a project in the Everglades wouldn't have the legal standing to challenge it.
"It generally just improves the business climate by eliminating an artificial means of harassment and delay," said Frank Matthews, a development attorney and Tallahassee lobbyist who supports the change. "It addresses the gadfly, the individual who has no interest in a permit, from being able to sue anybody in the state to be an obstructionist."
Environmentalists say frivolous suits are a myth. They say it takes money and nerve to challenge development, especially in small counties where one industry dominates.
"We know that people who challenge developments take a big risk," said John Whitescarver of Hobe Sound, president of the Florida chapter of Republicans for the Environment.
The bill also affects environmental and homeowner groups all over Florida. It says in order to file a challenge, a group must have at least 25 members in the affected area, and it has to have been a Florida corporation for a year.
That worries people like Bobby C. Billie, an American Indian who is not part of the government-recognized Seminole Tribe of Florida. Billie, who lives in South Florida, is spiritual leader of an offshoot group, the Independent Seminole Nation, which eschews life on organized Indian reservations.
Billie has made it his life's work to protect Indian burial grounds all over the state.
Under the bill, Billie says he would have no legal standing to challenge development outside his home county. And he certainly doesn't have 25 members in every county to file a challenge as an organized group.
Three years ago, Billie objected to a development near ancient burial grounds along Marshall Creek in Jacksonville. The developer was a constituent of King's. King says someone in South Florida shouldn't be able to challenge a development in Jacksonville. So King tacked the legal-standing language onto the Everglades bill.
Under the bill, ordinary homeowners associations also could face a tough legal fight. To challenge a project, a group must be incorporated specifically to protect "the environment, fish and wildlife resources, and the protection of air and water quality." Homeowner groups don't qualify. And most groups come together to fight a specific project, so they likely would not meet the requirement that the group be in place a year ahead of time.
"Most of the big environmental cases in Florida could not have been brought" under the bill's new definitions of legal standing, said David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.
One case he cites: In the late 1990s, a new group organized as the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida to oppose a phosphate mine in De Soto County because it would harm the region's groundwater. The group wouldn't have had standing under the bill because it didn't have 25 members and wasn't incorporated when it filed the legal challenge.
"We won the case," Guest said. "We caught them red-handed on their misstatements of what the impacts were. The environmental impacts were much worse. The dramatic impacts from that mine would be taking place right now."
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