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Submerged lands bill passes a test

Environmentalists and agriculture interests argue before the House Judiciary Committee.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that Florida's attorney general called "one of the greatest land giveaways" in state history passed its first committee Tuesday in a bitter hearing in which speakers invoked private property rights, the Boy Scouts, starving manatees and Communist China.

The so-called "sovereign submerged lands bill" -- pushed by agricultural interests and co-sponsored by some 75 lawmakers in the Republican-led Legislature -- passed the House Judiciary Committee 11-1.

The bill attempts to settle a legal dispute about an imaginary line along the banks of Florida's lakes and rivers, the place where public land ends and private land begins. The soggy bottoms of Florida's waterways have been owned by the public since the state's frontier days, when rivers, bays and streams were the only "highways." At issue is where, along the shore, private land rights begin.

To defuse arguments raised by environmentalists, the Republican Majority Office in the House sent out a sample question-and-answer sheet so lawmakers can deflect criticism about the bill.

"It is not an environmental issue," said one of the bill's main sponsors, Rep. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "It is clearly a private property rights issue."

Tree farmers and cattle ranchers packed into the front rows, wincing when environmental lobbyists called it a "land grab" that would wipe out the public's chance to camp along Florida's wild rivers.

"If the Boy Scouts get out of their boats, they can be arrested and taken to jail," claimed David Guest, a lawyer for the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund.

The ranchers brought hired guns: several Tallahassee lobbyists, a retired Supreme Court justice sympathetic to their cause and a media consultant who was once the spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford was enlisted to speak, and he recounted a recent trade mission he took to China where, he said, "everything is owned by the government."

"This is not China," Crawford said. "In this country, private property rights are important."

Crawford praised the bill's Republican sponsors, Dockery and Adam Putnam of Bartow, as "Bat Woman and Boy Wonder" for taking on the issue. Stung by weeks of bad press on the measure, Dockery and Putnam came out on the defensive. They brought along a slide show that even had a dig at Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, showing a man fishing in a boat on dry land with the legend: "The Fishing's Fine on Lake Butterworth!"

Butterworth and three other Cabinet members -- Comptroller Bob Milligan, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson -- came out against the measure in March. Butterworth called the bill "one of the dumbest things the state of Florida has ever done."

Tuesday, Gallagher appeared to be moving toward supporting the measure. He sent a letter praising a newer version of the bill.

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