Crist bows down to developers again

Published Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gov. Charlie Crist's sellout to developers is now complete. He signed into law Tuesday a bill that neuters the governing boards of the state's five water management districts, which grant permits for large-scale water pumping and wetlands destruction. Now that authority will rest solely in the hands of the districts' executive directors. Developers and big industry will be able to more easily drain Florida and pave over what's left.

Piece by piece, this governor has systematically dismantled what little protections there are for Floridians fed up with traffic and overdevelopment. First, Crist gutted growth management efforts by signing a law that enables developers to avoid paying for roads to accommodate the traffic their projects generate. Now he has made it easier to destroy wetlands and pump huge quantities of water in a state that faces a drinking water shortage. And Floridians with the gumption to fight will have little recourse.

The authority to grant permits to pump large amounts of water and destroy wetlands has rested with 49 gubernatorial appointees who serve on the governing boards of the water management districts. Decisions on large requests -— more than 500,000 gallons a day of groundwater pumping and destruction of more than an acre of wetlands — had to be made in open meetings. Comment was accepted from all interested parties.

Under Senate Bill 2080, there is no requirement that the executive director accept public comment or make his decisions in public. And the ability to appeal an executive director's decision only works in one direction. Applicants for permits can appeal to the district board if their permit is rejected. Opponents of permits that are granted, such as environmental groups or the general public, have no similar right to appeal. How's that for tilting the playing field in favor of the powerful and well-connected?

This law effectively muzzles those who would raise their voices in support of protecting natural resources. The only options for citizens who oppose the granting of a permit to pump ground water or destroy wetlands will be to file for an administrative hearing or appeal to the governor and Cabinet. That will be impractical and expensive for most Floridians.

In a signing statement that carries no legal authority, Crist asked the water management governing boards and executive directors to continue to include these permit applications on public agendas and discuss them in public meetings. Asking them to voluntarily do what they have been legally bound to do is a fig leaf that will be quickly brushed aside by the special interests who prefer to do their dirty work in private.

Now more than ever, this state needs to be smarter about managing growth, conserving water and protecting wetlands. Yet these new laws, SB 360 and SB 2080, do not provide the tools to accomplish those goals. They break the ones Florida has relied upon for decades to at least slow down the destruction of its natural resources.

In Tallahassee, state legislators usually can be expected to do the bidding of the powerful and well-financed. This governor was not expected to let them get away with it. But Crist is running for the U.S. Senate and raising campaign cash from special interests that will benefit from the dismantling of growth management and the water management districts. Perhaps it is best that he has his sights on Washington. He has done more than enough damage in Tallahassee.

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