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Public land debate tests tempers

Opponents of a bill to give submerged lands back to private property owners call it the biggest land grab in Florida's history.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- A decades-old fight over public land ownership in Florida grew rancorous at the Capitol Thursday, when a legislative workshop degenerated into insults, finger-pointing and table-thumping.

As tensions escalated, state Rep. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who is chairwoman of the House Environmental Protection Committee, sharply interrupted speakers, wagged her finger and accused environmentalists of lying.

Lawyer Jonathan Glogau, who litigates public lands disputes for the state, got so frustrated at one point that he tossed a huge cardboard diagram on the negotiating table in disgust.

And attorneys who have squared off on opposite sides of environmental issues for years rehashed old legal arguments while the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

The issue that inflamed such political passion? An arcane legal debate over land deeds that date back more than 150 years, to the frontier days when Florida first became a state and the federal government sold swampland for development.

The state considers the soggy bottoms of Florida's lakes, rivers, bays and streams -- so-called "sovereign submerged lands" -- to be public property. But now, agricultural interests are pushing to have the Legislature give those submerged lands back to private property owners.

"The Legislature ought to stand behind their citizens," argued Wade Hopping, who represents the Florida Property Rights Coalition.

Private property rights advocates have some powerful allies: Dockery, Rep. Adam Putnam, a Republican from Bartow, and Sen. Charlie Bronson, a Republican from Satellite Beach -- all of whom come from families involved in the cattle ranching and citrus businesses.

Environmentalists and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth are calling it the biggest land grab in state history, and predict that Floridians will see fenced-off shorelines and mowed-down cypress bogs if the bill becomes law.

"What's at issue is that the state is ready to turn over 500,000 acres to private landowners," said David Guest, an attorney for the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs have not yet taken a public position on the bill.

But in the Capitol, the ideological battle lines are stark.

On one side during Thursday's legislative workshop: lobbyists for forestry, mining and ranching interests, which stand to gain from a change in the law.

On the other side of the table: environmentalists and state lawyers, who argue that the public's right to own Florida's submerged lands is well-documented in numerous court cases.

Dockery, Putnam and Tamarac Democrat Walter "Skip" Campbell are sponsoring the controversial lands bill, which has generated controversy even though it hasn't been heard by a single committee.

Despite Thursday's rancor, Putnam closed the meeting by calling it "productive dialogue." "We have an issue, we throw it out there, and we let the dogs chew on it awhile," he said. "The dogs have been busy out there today."

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