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State likely to end local agriculture rules

Bay area legislators failed in their efforts to get Hillsborough County exempted.

Published May 2, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - State lawmakers are expected to pass a bill to prevent any local government in Florida, except Broward County, from regulating agriculture.

Some Tampa Bay area lawmakers Thursday failed in their attempt to exempt Hillsborough County from the bill.

The sweeping measure, which affects cities and counties, is pushed by lobbyists for Florida's citrus, timber, vegetable and cattle industries. They say local regulations are threatening their businesses.

But some Florida residents worry about the impacts of huge dairies and factory farms and are asking for new local laws. State and federal laws, they say, are too lax. In Citrus County, for example, a landowner building a large dairy farm didn't have to notify neighbors, get a building permit for a barn to hold hundreds of cows, or hold a public hearing when he got permission to pump more than a half-million gallons of groundwater.

The bill says that if a farm already is regulated by state or federal rules, local governments can't pass more regulations. That covers virtually all Florida farms.

Some counties, like Hillsborough, have their own environmental regulations. The bill would "essentially eviscerate" the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, said Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa.

The EPC could no longer enforce local regulations on agricultural lands, including laws that protect small wetlands. Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, and Tampa Republican Reps. Ambler and Ed Homan tried to amend the bill to exempt Hillsborough.

"As Republicans," said Homan, "we're trying to put government down closer to the people. Give us the ability to govern ourselves."

But Republican leaders, including Tampa Republican Rep. Sandy Murman, held their hands up and pointed their thumbs down - a symbol to tell other Republican House members to vote no on the amendment.

Republican House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, of Plant City, supports the bill.

He said it is "a mixture of property rights and better growth management at the local level."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, who is chairwoman of the EPC, disagreed.

"I think it will have a devastating effect on the environment," she said. "It will completely undermine our zoning process. It's ironic that it's passing at this point in time, when south county, which is traditionally agricultural, is a hot market for subdivision development."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has championed local decisionmaking, has been silent on the bill.

Agricultural lobbyists have been trying to pass similar legislation for the past several years. It was originally called "The Right to Farm Act."

The current version passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday with no debate, and now heads for a final House vote today.

- Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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