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Sovereign lands bill seems to be sinking

Attorney General Bob Butterworth and every Florida environmental group lined up against the proposal, calling it a "land grab.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- The most hotly debated environmental bill of the 2000 legislative session will likely die a quiet death today.

The so-called "sovereign lands" bill, which opponents said could turn over 100,000 acres of public shoreline to private interests, won't make it out of the state Senate on the Legislature's final day without a two-thirds vote.

And the bill's sponsor, Democrat Skip Campbell of Tamarac, says he doesn't have the votes.

"You win some and you lose some," Campbell said Thursday evening. "We'll talk about it next year."

Environmentalists fighting the bill weren't yet ready to declare victory, even after Campbell and another Senate champion, John Laurent of Bartow, said the fight was over. And Ben Parks, a Florida Farm Bureau lobbyist who backs the measure, wasn't ready to concede defeat.

"We've still got tomorrow," Parks said Thursday night.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, worked hard this week to persuade his fellow senators to oppose the bill, which he said "was one of the worst things the Legislature could have done."

The measure was pushed by agribusiness and developers, who said it was an issue of fairness to private property owners. But Attorney General Bob Butterworth and every Florida environmental group lined up against it, calling it a "land grab" by special interests.

Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives had pushed the measure as a private property rights issue, and it passed out of that chamber this week on a 70-45 vote. The bill's champions were two Republican political newcomers who are allied with agribusiness: Rep. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow.

They said it was time for the Legislature to draw a line in the sand along Florida's lakes and rivers to fairly define, once and for all, where public (sovereign) land ends and private land begins.

The political debate was bruising. People invoked images of spilled blood, the American flag, Red China, the Boy Scouts, robber barons and starving manatees. They called each other liars and rehashed years of court battles to make their points.

Butterworth, the state's chief lawyer, said the bill would have taken some 100,000 acres of shoreline away from the public and turned it over to private landowners. Butterworth said earlier this week the House bill was unconstitutional and he probably wouldn't have been able to defend it in court.

On Thursday, a prominent Florida Republican environmentalist, Nathaniel Pryor Reed of Jupiter Island, traveled to the Capitol and spoke against the bill and other anti-environment legislation at a morning news conference.

"This will come back to haunt Republican legislators," he warned. "This is the kind of legislation that should not be sent to a Republican governor in his first term."

Gov. Jeb Bush indicated Thursday that he probably would have signed the measure.

Cattle ranchers, timber companies and developers argued that private landowners who got "swamp deeds" back in Florida's frontier days were entitled to claim the land as their own. But Florida courts have held that the waterways, and the lands just along the shoreline, are public because they were the state's first "highways."

Supporters were jubilant when the bill passed out of the House of Representatives on Tuesday. But the Senate didn't take the bill up. And the sponsors ran out of time.

"It would have been a real close vote in the Senate," Latvala predicted.

There were plans to amend the bill to satisfy Butterworth's concerns and make it more palatable to Bush.

This morning, on the last day of the session, several other major environmental bills are still pending. The House is expected to approve a multimillion dollar funding package to restore the Everglades. A bill to revise Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act awaits Senate action. Another bill that would create the Rodman Recreation Area near a controversial dam across the Ocklawaha River is pending.

So, too, are measures that would limit citizen challenges to developments and dictate whether Tampa Bay residents will have to get vehicle emissions tests. Also pending: a measure that would force taxpayers to foot the bill when pesticides contaminate soil and water and another that would expand the state's private-property rights law.

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