House committee passes controversial environmental and agricultural bills

Feb 22, 2011

The following article was published in The Current on February 22, 2011:

House committee passes controversial environmental and agricultural bills

By Bruce Ritchie 

A House committee on Thursday approved three of the most controversial environmental bills to arise prior to the start of the 2011 session.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee approved HB 13 dealing with septic tanks, HB 457 dealing with local fertilizer regulations and HB 421, involving agricultural exemptions from water management district permits.

HB 13 by Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, would repeal 2010’s requirement that septic tanks be inspected every five years. The Legislature voted in November to delay implementation from Jan. 1 to July 1 in response to complaints from affected homeowners.

“At a time we are trying to reduce government and make it more in favor of our citizens, this is an exciting bill,” Coley told members of the subcommittee.

Representatives of the Small County Coalition of Florida and Hillsborough County said they supported the bill. But a Sierra Club Florida representative said the inspections are needed to protect water quality and public health. The Florida Department of Health estimates 10 percent of the state’s estimated 2.7 million septic tanks are failing, according to a bill analysis.

The Florida Onsite Wastewater Association, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Home Builders Association and Florida Realtors are working on alternative bill language to establish criteria for allowing local governments to have their own inspection programs. 

HB 13 was approved 12-1. A similar bill in the Senate, SB 168, was approved by the Senate Health Regulation Committee by an 8-4 vote after some senators raised concerns about doing away with the inspection requirement.

HB 457 would prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer use unless they use a state model ordinance. A similar bill was filed last year in response to Pinellas County banning the sale of lawn fertilizer during the summer rainy season.

Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola and sponsor of HB 457, said allowing local governments to adopt their own regulations would create a “patchwork” that is difficult for businesses. The Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association and Associated Industries of Florida supported the bill.

But the bill faces opposition from the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Stormwater Association, Audubon of Florida and Sierra Club Florida. Sixteen local governments out of more than 400 in Florida have adopted stricter regulations than the state model fertilizer ordinance, said Stephen James, representing the Florida Association of Counties.

“It’s not like local governments are chomping at the bit to adopt these more stringent ordinances,” James said. “The bill seems like it’s trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

The committee voted 10-3 to approve the bill.

Regarding HB 421, state law since 1984 exempted agriculture from permitting by water management districts for “normal and necessary” agriculture and forestry operations, according to a bill analysis. 

In 2009, a court ruled in favor of the St. Johns River Water Management District in a case involving A. Duda and Sons Inc., one of the state’s largest farming operations. The court said law changes had virtually eliminated the agricultural exemption as it relates to altering wetlands.

Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, introduced HB 421, which would specify the exemption in state law dating back to 1984 for activities that divert water flow or affect wetlands. 

Supporters include the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. A St. Johns Water River Water Management District representative said the agency is working with Bembry on its concerns about the bill.

Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper warned the committee that the bill would remove the districts’ important environmental permitting responsibilities for draining agricultural land.

“Slow this one down for a minute and take another look at it and make sure you heard the water management districts,” Draper told the committee.

Frank Matthews, an attorney representing Hay LLC, an arm of Consolidated Tomoka Land Co., said the bill is “simply a do-no-harm bill to say, ‘Let agriculture continue in this state as it has for 27 years pursuant to this exemption.'”  The committee voted 12-1 to approve the bill.