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GOP targets land use limits

State lawmakers see a chance to rework the laws that they say have hurt development and agriculture in Florida.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In a windowless committee room, blood pressures are rising.

Dark-suited lobbyists line the walls -- a square-jawed army of persuaders hired by two of Florida's biggest industries: development and agriculture. In the audience, a rag-tag band of environmental lobbyists with canvas briefcases and sensible shoes watches the legislative debate unfold.

The talking ends. The lawmakers vote. When everybody files out of the room, only one group is smiling: the lobbyists for development and agriculture.

"We're gnats to them," complains Susie Caplowe, a Sierra Club lobbyist.

In a legislative session that already seems to be extra-contentious, the environment is shaping up to be among the nastiest fights going.

To bolster private property rights, some Republican lawmakers are trying to tear down a host of environmental laws that, they say, have swung the pendulum too far over the years.

There's an extra urgency because 63 lawmakers are leaving office next year under the state's term limits law.

"This is a unique opportunity, with a Republican governor who is pro-agriculture and a Legislature that's pro-agriculture. We're trying to get some things done before new members come in," says Phil Leary, who lobbies for the Florida Farm Bureau.

In years past, Leary complains, "the environmentalists and the anti-growthers -- that radical faction -- ran roughshod over us. Now, we're trying to correct some things."

Wade Hopping, a leading development lobbyist, agrees: "I think the legislators, as a group, suddenly see their ability to do things in areas that were once considered sacred cows."

Already, lawmakers have moved to cut out the heart of Florida's growth management law, passed 15 years ago to curb urban sprawl. One bill would change the way citizens can challenge developments. Another would eliminate vehicle emissions testing, even though smog is still a problem in the Tampa Bay area.

There are still weeks to go before the Legislature adjourns on May 5. Many of the more extreme bills may die -- or at least get watered down -- after they pass out of the House of Representatives and head to the more moderate state Senate. Senate leaders have vowed to kill any attempts to revamp growth management this year.

Every legislative session begins with proposals that have little chance of passing. But, says Florida Audubon Society lobbyist Eric Draper, who once worked as a House of Representatives staffer: "I have never seen so many bad bills that are moving and they have support from the leadership. The types of issues that are being raised are really aggressively anti-environmental. We're swamped."

One of the most hotly contested measures attempts to set, in law, the imaginary line along lakes and rivers where public land ends and private land begins. The bill, which environmentalists and Attorney General Bob Butterworth decry as a "land grab," has enormous support, with some 75 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors. It's backed by the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Cattlemen's Association, the Florida Property Rights Coalition, the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Land Council.

Several other bills would shield agricultural lands from zoning changes and local regulations.

"If we're going to keep this state from being covered by asphalt and concrete, we're going to have to maintain a viable agricultural industry," Leary argues.

But many moderate Republicans are wincing at the spectacle. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are plotting to paint Republican opponents as anti-environment zealots during next fall's elections.

"I think the environmentalists are right to be concerned. I am concerned," says Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, the Senate's Republican majority leader. "I think Republicans could pay a price at the polls if people get riled up about it. I'm hearkening back to the Newt Gingrich Congress of 1995, when Republicans went after the Clean Water Act and overdid it. We've lost seats in both elections since."

Florida's most prominent Republican environmentalist, Nathaniel Reed of Jupiter Island, calls this "the defining moment for those who are going home and paying back their campaign contributors."

"The boomers are still trying to develop every inch of this state," says Reed, who served as undersecretary of the Interior under President Richard Nixon and was Republican Gov. Claude Kirk's top environmental aide.

"These guys are nitwits," Reed charges. "Let them go home."

Nationally, Democrats have been able to paint the Republican Party as anti-environment. But in Florida, it has never been that clear-cut.

Florida's most popular environmental initiative, the Preservation 2000 land-buying program, was launched by Republicans. Its successor, Florida Forever, was passed last year by a Republican-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. And in the Legislature, some of the most prominent environmental stewards have been Republicans. Some of the worst despoilers have been Democrats.

Last year, the Republican Party put up $100,000 to launch an environmental think tank called the Teddy Roosevelt Society. Former Pinellas Sen. Curt Kiser is the group's chairman and Orlando lawyer Thom Rumberger is vice-chairman.

"We're a struggling group in the party," Rumberger says. "Certainly, there are Republicans within the party and within the Legislature who are in favor of the environment. But this session, it's like they are piling on at a football game. They put the "property rights' label on almost everything that comes down the pike. It's a deep philosophy that a person can do whatever they want to on their property and the state shouldn't tell them what to do."

The Teddy Roosevelt Society has been silent on most legislative issues, save one: Supporting a huge state appropriation to match federal dollars to restore the Everglades. It's a priority for Bush, and for Republican leaders.

"It's amazed me to hear environmentalists complain, when here we have the largest environmental project in the world -- the Everglades," says Ben Parks, another Florida Farm Bureau lobbyist. "It's $200-million they are going to raise for the Everglades, and $38-million to clean up Lake Okeechobee. How much more do they want? If I got that much money, I'd go home."

Florida Wildlife Federation lobbyist David Gluckman counters:

"The question for the ag boys is: How much money did they make off destroying those systems? The truth is, they ought to be paying their share for the cleanup."

Florida's new Democratic Party chairman, Bob Poe, promises that the Republican legislators' treatment of the environment "will be a huge issue for us" in the coming elections.

"I keep hearing the refrain from that Joni Mitchell song," Poe says. "They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot. They cut all the trees and put them in a tree museum, and charged all the people a dollar-and-a-half just to see them."

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