Since taking office as Florida’s new governor in January, Ron DeSantis has made Everglades restoration and water quality a top priority.
He committed to increasing state investments in those categories by $1 billion over his first term, and the Legislature went on to exceed his first year’s funding request.
The governor also replaced the Board of Governors at the South Florida Water Management District, the lead Florida agency on Everglades restoration, with a more environmentally oriented set of appointees.
He created a task force to target blue-green algae, bolstered state efforts to fight red tide and appointed a chief science officer who vowed to focus on water quality.
Citing these and other initiatives in his first State of the State address in March, DeSantis declared, “We are repositioning our water policy to meet the needs of our citizens.”
And yet a pernicious piece of legislation that would take away a primary tool for Floridians to protect the Everglades and the state’s waterways will soon be transmitted to Gov. DeSantis. To build on, rather than undercut, his strong start on environmental protection, he must veto House Bill 7103.
Under Florida law, every local government must adopt and maintain a comprehensive plan — its own blueprint for growth. With growth in Florida approaching its historic high of 1,000 new residents a day, such planning is more important than ever.
Comprehensive plans can address a broad range of issues that affect water quality, including preservation of wetlands and other ecologically sensitive habitats, aquifer recharge, water supply, conservation of open space, drainage, flood protection, coastal management and agricultural buffers.
Local governments are required to make development decisions that are consistent with their plans. But the only way to enforce this requirement is for citizens to take legal action, known as consistency challenges.
In the final days of this year’s legislative session, a provision withdrawn from consideration in committee due to opposition from 1000 Friends of Florida was quietly added to HB 7103 on the Senate floor with an amendment that would effectively eliminate consistency challenges. The amendment was not previously introduced or debated by legislators in committee, or subjected to public testimony, or analyzed by staff. There was never a meaningful discussion of its serious consequences.
As amended, HB 7103 would force citizens challenging comprehensive plan amendments to fight in an expedited proceeding, denying them the benefit of a full hearing. Even worse, it would make the losing party in these challenges pay the prevailing party’s attorney fees.
This provision would virtually shut down consistency challenges, because the risk of getting slapped with huge legal bills would scare away all but the wealthiest citizens and local advocacy groups from challenging comprehensive plan amendments.
The environmental protections in comprehensive plans can play a critical role in protecting the health of the Everglades, natural springs, rivers, estuaries and other fragile waterways in Florida.
In 2013, for example, 1000 Friends of Florida and allied organizations successfully utilized a consistency challenge to block three mining permits within the Everglades Agricultural Area in Palm Beach County that conflicted with the county’s comprehensive plan. But eliminating consistency challenges eliminates the ability to enforce such environmental protections, as well as any other comprehensive plan provisions.
So, while legislators heeded the call from Gov. DeSantis to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Everglades restoration and water quality improvements, atoning for a legacy of environmental neglect in the past, they sowed the seeds for additional costly water problems in the future by passing HB 7103.
When Gov. DeSantis explained in his State of the State address why he dismissed previous members of the South Florida Water Management District, he said, “The people of Florida should have confidence that their interests are being reflected in policy implementation.”
We couldn’t agree more. Floridians certainly deserve confidence that the comprehensive plans in their communities will be enforced.
The only way to maintain it is for the governor to veto HB 7103. You may contact Gov. DeSantis at (850) 717-9337 or via email at www.flgov.com/email-the-governor.
Victoria Tschinkel is chair of 1000 Friends of Florida, the state’s leading advocate for planning in the public interest, and past Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.