Water and climate bills are marching through their committees as Audubon works with elected officials to forge a more sustainable, resilient future for Florida. Meanwhile, staff and volunteers came together once more to defeat a boardwalk proposal that would endanger shorebirds at Ft. Myers Beach, and we launched a new training initiative with local chapters.
Audubon Florida
Audubon Advocate | Your Policy Update
A committee substitute to SB 1450 by Senator Gruters (R-Sarasota) passed the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice on Tuesday and is headed to Senate appropriations, its last committee of reference.

This bill increases civil penalties for violations of environmental laws and requires changes to both the amount and the duration of penalties for violating the State’s environmental laws. Senator Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) successfully filed an amendment to the bill that encourages municipalities to develop an inspection program for sewer laterals for residential and commercial properties within their jurisdiction. It also requires a seller to disclose any known defects in the property’s sanitary sewer lateral when a home is being sold.

Senator Mayfield’s (R-Vero) water bill SB 712, Water Quality Improvements, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. SB 712 is a comprehensive water bill that addresses all of the major sources of pollution, including septic systems, wastewater, stormwater, agriculture, and biosolids, while adding new requirements for BMAPs, the state’s water quality restoration plan. The bill directs the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop rules relating to most of these topics.

An amendment filed on Wednesday evening made some controversial additions to the bill. One provision removes the requirement that the Cabinet vote unanimously to approve the appointment of the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection; instead, only one of three Cabinet members would have to join the governor in voting to approve.

The other addition to the amendment is a preemption of local governments preventing them from granting legal rights to the natural environment. There are already citizen initiatives in several counties with this process in the works.

Other provisions in the amendment include prioritization of four watersheds (Lake Okeechobee, Indian River Lagoon, Caloosahatchee Estuary, and Silver Springs) for initial data collection and verification of agricultural best management practices. Importantly, for the first time ever, data collected will be shared with DEP and the Blue-Green Algae Task Force to evaluate the BMP program and to develop a more robust program going forward.

The new amendment requires DEP to deliver a study on the bottled water industry and its effect on springs by June 30, 2021. Additionally, until June 30, 2022, any consumptive use permits for water derived from a spring for bottling purposes must be approved by unanimous vote by the governing board of a water management district. The amendment requires a variety of other reports to be developed, including an analysis of water quality monitoring plans for BMAPs identifying deficiencies and ways in which to resolve those deficiencies.
Magnificent Frigatebird. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Magnificent Frigatebird. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Climate Bills Move Ahead
HB 0579, Public Financing of Construction Projects by Representative Aloupis (R-Miami), unanimously passed the House Appropriations Committee and heads to the State Affairs Committee next. HB 0579 requires a sea level impact projection study for state-financed construction projects. HB 0579 and its companion, SB 178 by Senator Rodriguez (D-Miami), are in their last referenced committees.

EV charging stations remain an important issue in this session. A committee bill by State Affairs, SAC6, is the House companion to Senator Lee’s (R-Brandon) Electric Vehicle Charging Station Infrastructure bill, and requires DOT, in coordination with other entities, to develop and adopt a master plan for EV charging stations on the state highway system by July 1, 2021.

The bill provides goals and objectives for the master plan and requires DOT to update its master plan annually. Another provision of this bill requires cities to fast-track permits for electric utilities in public rights-of-way; the second provision allows companies to negotiate and build linear facilities through agricultural conservation easements. The bill passed State Affairs on Thursday and has been filed as HB 7099, Essential State Infrastructure, sponsored by Representative Ingoglia (R-Springhill).
M-CORES Update
At the M-CORES meetings this week, Audubon staff with seats on the task forces shared calculations demonstrating that the three roads combined could cost between $10-21 billion, with only $4 billion in revenues from existing turnpikes available to foot the bill.

The Florida Department of Transportation M-CORES Task Forces met on February 11 in Madison to discuss the potential Suncoast Extension, on February 12 in Fanning Springs for the Northern Turnpike Extension, and on February 13 in Moore Haven on the Southwest-Central Florida Connector.

A principle component of the meetings was the unveiling by DOT staff of maps showing prioritized “No Impact” and “Avoidance” areas. The No Impact areas colored in bright pink propose locations where no impacts from the construction of the “Multi-Use Corridors of Economic Significance” will be allowed whatsoever, and include major lakes springheads, and high risk coastal areas. The Avoidance areas include most state, water management district, and federal conservation lands. Within the Avoidance category, no new corridors will be allowed, however, existing corridors (such as U.S. 19, and U.S. 27) through the listed areas might be converted through co-location of a toll road to serve M-CORES purposes.

DOT staff also proposed one exception in the two northern study areas that would allow road planners to “preserve ability to traverse the Cross Florida Greenway (with a new road corridor) with potential enhancement opportunities.”

Environmental group representatives and a number of local government representatives who serve on the task forces urged DOT to add additional lands to the Avoidance area designations. A county commissioner from Marion County suggested that a new M-CORES route might not be necessary at all, because of excess capacity on major state roads passing through the area. The same commissioner then urged that Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area, which covers the western part of that county, be added to the Avoidance category.

Other county commissioners chimed in to support that suggestion, and the representative from Levy County suggested that the entirety of Levy County be placed in the Avoidance category.

Audubon representatives also presented an analysis questioning whether all the toll revenues from the entire statewide turnpike system would be sufficient to support bond debt funding of the projects, noting that M-CORES proposes some 330 miles of turnpikes that could cost between $10 – $21 billion dollars to construct if cost-per-mile is compared to other recent road projects.

The Audubon presentation also noted that the maximum amount of additional bonding available from turnpike tolls appears to be limited to no more than $4 billion dollars. DOT staff did not dispute this analysis.

The three task forces will convene again on March 4, March 24, and March 25.

For more information and to see the task force schedule, click here.
Willet. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Willet. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Town of Fort Myers Beach Protects Critical Wildlife Area - Again!
Audubon’s Shorebird Stewards, Turtle Time monitors, and residents packed the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council chambers to hear the Council again vote 3-2 on a rehearing to deny a special exception application for rental property owners to build a 300’ boardwalk bridge next to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area.

Audubon and the Town had litigated over the State permit on this issue, and remain partners in enforcing the Town’s wise policies to protect a vital part of a barrier island community that Roger Tory Peterson once said was one of the best places in the world to photograph shorebirds.

The State made the area a Critical Wildlife Area in 1992, and today Audubon hires staff and trains volunteers as part of its Shorebird Stewardship Program. Audubon and partners monitor and protect these imperiled birds, which include nesting Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, and many species of migratory wintering shorebirds.

As a key part of the rehearing, the Castle Beach Condo Association offered a beach access easement to the rental property owners, who are just a couple of doors down. Castle Beach for years has been a dedicated partner with Audubon at this site, allowing staff and volunteers access to the nesting habitat.
Audubon field trip. Photo: Renee Wilson.
Audubon field trip. Photo: Renee Wilson.
Audubon Florida Launches New Climate Initiative with Local Chapters
On Wednesday, February 19, Audubon Florida hosted a webinar for chapter leadership across the state, introducing our 2020 climate and advocacy training program. In 2020 we want to be a force for change by engaging elected officials at the county and municipal level through our most valuable resource: the chapters and chapter leadership who lead this work every day!

During the webinar, we discussed our goal to partner with chapters on advocacy trainings that will empower Audubon members to be the most effective advocates for science-based solutions to Florida’s climate and conservation challenges. After the trainings, we'll continue to work with chapters whose members want to lead climate initiatives and support or pass local climate legislation.

Nearly forty chapter leaders joined the call to share their ideas and discuss next steps. It was clear from the discussion that Audubon chapters have been and are continuing to be important voices for climate solutions, and we look forward to growing that work.

You can get started today with our Model Ordinance Toolkit.
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