| Problematic Bill Improved for Everglades Restoration, Concerns Remain for the Rural and Family Lands Program|
|SB 2508, filed by the Senate Appropriations Committee (Chair Sen. Stargel, R-Lakeland), passed the full Senate this week. This conforming bill – as filed – would have negative consequences for Everglades restoration and the state’s land conservation programs. The bill was met with significant opposition from Governor DeSantis and various environmental organizations, and would have tied the South Florida Water Management District’s funding and their ability to implement Everglades restoration projects to a state certification process requiring the District to affirm that their actions would cause no harm to “legal users.” The expedited completion of the EAA reservoir is a key component to moving water south to provide clean freshwater to the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.|
The amendment to the bill, filed by Senator Albritton (R-Wauchula), on the evening of February 16, 2022, is a significant improvement over the original version with respect to Everglades restoration. The bill removes an unnecessary and redundant requirement that the South Florida Water Management District reevaluate components of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) to ensure there will be no harm to existing “legal users.” Audubon had advocated for the removal of this provision and we believe this is a positive outcome.
The bill amendment, however, did not strike a controversial contingency provision that would tie the South Florida Water Management District to a mandatory certification process requiring the District to demonstrate no harm to “legal users” under agency decisions. However, Sen. Albritton’ s amendment did exempt certain Everglades restoration projects from this contingency provision, including: the EAA Reservoir, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Storage Project, and the Indian River Lagoon South Project. These carve outs are important to ensure that these projects are not delayed.
While the Senate was in session, concerns were voiced by several members regarding potential delays the bill may cause to Everglades restoration and future water quality impacts associated with those delays. Audubon is grateful to Sen. Albritton for the helpful changes to this legislation.
Rural and Family Lands Protection Program Changes Threaten Future of Florida Land Conservation
The amendment made no changes however to the bill’s bad provisions changing the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP). Currently, the state protects land using three tools: Florida Forever buys ecologically sensitive areas, Florida Communities Trust buys community parks, and Rural and Family Lands easements protect agricultural buffers from development. This bill would fundamentally change Rural and Family Lands by opening it to full-fee acquisitions (purchasing the land outright)—making it a competitor rather than a complement to Florida Forever. It would also allow landowners to double-dip by using lands under easement to the state for mitigation; it allows the Department of Agriculture to determine a “fair price” to pay landowners rather than basing it on appraisal; and expands eligible lands from ecologically important ranches and timber to any agricultural uses—potentially opening the door for the state to acquire low conservation value row crop land. Land acquisition programs only work if the public and landowners have confidence in the transparency and accountability of the state’s decisions. The current language erodes both. SB 2508 passed the Senate with a 37 to 2 vote and will be negotiated when the House and Senate meet for the budget conference. Audubon will continue to advocate for further improvements to this bill.