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Land bills causing angst among environmentalists

They worry that two legislative measures that would redraw public shoreline boundaries amount to a land grab. Proponents say they restore private property rights.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Environmentalists call it a classic land grab, a bill that would take vast expanses of land from public hands under the guise of protecting private property rights.

To supporters, the bill would correct a historical wrong. Backed by special interests, legislators, including state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, claim waterfront land owners have been denied full access to their property.

The proposal, which is wending its way through both houses of the Legislature, would redraw the boundaries of many public shorelines by redefining the term "ordinary high water mark."

To determine where public lands begin and end, the state has traditionally relied on the normal elevation of water during the year. The courts have upheld the practice.

But if successful, the bill would extend private property by basing boundaries on water levels during the dry season, said David Guest, who heads the Southeast region office in Tallahassee of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

The bill would effectively turn 150,000 to 200,000 acres of public waterfront property over to private landowners, many of them rich logging and cattle ranching interests, Guest said. Areas with flat shorelines, such as Citrus County, are the most vulnerable, he said. They stand to lose rich aquatic habitats that support fish, birds and other animals.

"This is the only environmental issue that has galvanized the entire environmental community in the state into one solid wall in the last 20 years," Guest said. "Let's have a land grab and let's hand it over to the timber baron, the cattle baron and the land barons.

Local environmentalists are alarmed and angry, as well.

"Any place around the Tsala Apopka (chain of) Lakes and the Withlacoochee River would seem to be affected," said Ron Miller, president of the Citrus County Audubon Society. "That's where the conservation lands are, like Potts Preserve and Flying Eagle.

"I can't believe anybody that supports the bill thinks they're supporting the environment," he said.

Argenziano, the bill's co-sponsor, scoffs at the measure's critics, saying legislators are simply trying to protect the rights of people who have legal deeds to waterfront property. For decades, she said landowners have been deprived of the lawful use of that property because the state is misrepresenting where the high water mark really is.

The most current House bill will be discussed today in the House General Government Appropriations Committee, where a spokesman for the Florida Property Rights Coalition is predicting passage. The Senate version was referred in March to the Natural Resources Committee.

The current House bill assuages at least one fear of environmentalists by excluding tidal waters. Had the provision remained, it would have threatened the habitat for endangered manatees and other creatures.

"We can't figure out where the high water line is," Argenziano said. According to the current definition, "If it's under water most of the year it's sovereign submerged lands. The problem is it's (water levels) gone the other way . . . where it's high and dry for year.

"People who have been paying property taxes on the land should not fear losing it."

While critics claim large land interests stand to benefit the most, Argenziano said she is "fighting for the little guy," such as residents who want to build docks and extend fences into the shoreline.

Besides, she said, landowners will still need to obtain the necessary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build their projects. The idea behind the bill is nothing new, she said.

"It's not a land grab for public lands," she said. "The four years I been up here it's been discussed. To have 60 to 70 sponsors, that shows it's got pretty good support."

But the environmental community says it smells a rat, Guest said.

One definition of the ordinary high water mark in the bill mirrors the current definition, which has been supported in rare court cases since 1927, he said. That is, the public property line ends where land is usable for agricultural and cattle ranching purposes.

The catch is the bill's final definition, he said. It states property boundaries can be set by where water subsides outside the rainy season.

"As a matter of policy, the state should never give away property," said Guest, who is optimistic the Senate will water down any radical changes.

He said, "The land they are trying to give away is . . . the cypress forest, the herbaceous marshes, it's where people go to fish . . . it's the nurseries for aquatic life, it's where the bald eagles live, it's where the wading bird feed, it's where during the dry season the people camp.

"The unfortunate reality for many waterfront property owners is that their deeds are incorrect. The law on that is if that's what happens, you lose."

The Florida Property Rights Coalition, which represents such large land-holding interests as the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Cattleman's Association and the Florida Farm Bureau, is lobbying for passage.

"The bill will end decades of legal wrangling over ownership of lands," Coalition spokesman April Herrle said. "Most landowners on river and streams don't even know their land is at risk."

"We're optimistic that it will pass," through the House committee, she said.

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