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Ag bill draws enviro's ire

By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-962410.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A bill that supporters say will give farmers more flexibility in working their land drew some fire from environmentalists Friday. Tom Flanigan reports the bill appeared before the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee.

The bill's sponsor, Democrat Leonard Bembry of Greenville, told members there wasn't anything bad-intentioned in the measure.

"This bill clarifies the environmental permitting exemptions farmers have always had under Florida law. It does not encourage or promote the destruction of wetlands."

The problem is that every so often, farm land in Florida is bought up by developers. Under the 1984 state law, they may make significant changes to the property's drainage areas without needing permits from the local water management district so long as the owners claim it's for farming purposes. Then they have the land rezoned and proceed with the development. Representative Bembry says that's what his bill was intended to prevent.

"The bill gives the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services - not the Water Management Districts - the final say on whether the landowner is a farmer or whether they are farming in accordance with the appropriate BMPs; best management practices. This bill prevents abuse by requiring a landowner to demonstrate bona fide agricultural activities for four of the last seven years prior to converting the land to a use other than farming."

But Eric Draper with Audubon of Florida feared there was still a chance for developer mischief in the bill.

"You still run the risk of having un-permitted activities that would impact cause downstream flooding. I'm not saying that every activity or every is going to cause that, but I think the reason that you have permits from the water management district right now is to prevent that downstream impact."

And Draper worried, because there are projects with long development horizons, there could still be abuse by those with plenty of time to fulfill the four-year farming requirement.

"There are some situations in the same place that you've seen people take a group of starving cows and put them on a hotel lot before they build the hotel in order to avoid taxes. There are situations where this section of the law could be abused."

But Butch Calhoun with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association argued the Bembry bill simply returned things to the way they were when the famers' permit exemptions were first written into Florida law.

"It was adopted in 1984 and what has happened is that the courts and a water management district or two have adopted rules and they have actually clouded or taken away that exemption and what his bill does, it just reinstates and clarifies that exemption."

Or, as Representative Bembry further explained, a new law is needed to let folks know there's an old law that says pretty much the same thing.

"You know, we just want to put it in statute in such a way that people will recognize the fact that is the law of the land."

Janet Bowman with the Nature Conservancy wasn't entirely reassured by Bembry's explanation.

"I mean, at the current time the Nature Conservancy has some concerns about it, but everyone's working on it and I'm confident we can come up with a good solution."

And, with Representative Bembry also expressing his willingness to further refine the bill, the committee approved the measure in its current form unanimously.