Florida Legislative Update

Issue 2, 2009 Articles:

* Emergency Action Taken to Protect Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles
* Florida Legislative Update

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Florida Legislative Update

By Gary Appelson

During the 2009 Florida legislative session, which ended May 8, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) testified at a legislative committee hearing addressing coastal armoring issues and worked with the Florida conservation community to support passage of a landmark land conservation law.

Geotubes (again!)
CCC has been working for years to ensure that the installation of 1000-ton rock hard sand bags, known as geotubes, on Florida’s beaches is done in a way that does not harm turtles or the nesting beach. As has been reported in the Velador, when this type of coastal armoring is placed on the beach and covered with sand it can have serious impacts to nesting turtles, beach environments, and coastal processes. These sand tubes often become partially uncovered or cannot maintain the necessary and required depth of sand cover to provide a suitable nesting environment. When this occurs, the sand tubes can block access to suitable nesting areas, cause an increase in false crawls, or compromise the nesting environment resulting in a decrease in the number of nests that successfully incubate and hatch. Studies of geotube systems in Florida have conclusively documented these impacts.

Advanced Coastal Technologies (ACT), an Alabama-based company that owns the patent, has been lobbying the Florida legislature for years to make it easier to permit and install geotubes. In 2007, the legislature passed a law governing the installation of geotubes. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was then required to develop rules regulating the permitting, installation and maintenance of these structures. After being lobbied by geotube company representatives, a House Committee held a “workshop” on DEP’s rulemaking process in April. The Committee members threatened to “override” the agency’s rule making process if it did not finalize the rule immediately. It appeared that the Committee had only been provided with one side of the geotube story. CCC testified at length about the potential and actual harmful impacts of geotubes and their continued failure to perform as intended. CCC testified that DEP’s careful and deliberative rule making process was necessary due to the complicated issues surrounding the unprecedented installation of these massive structures on Florida’s beaches. The Committee asked DEP to commit to a timeline to finalize the geotube rules. To view CCC’s testimony visithttp://freethebeach.conserveturtles.org.

Amendment 4
In November 2008, Florida voters unanimously approved Amendment 4, which amended the Florida Constitution to require the state legislature to make a property tax exemption for landowners that place a perpetual conservation easement on their land. It also required the legislature to establish a classification process for land used for conservation. In May, the 2009 Florida Legislature passed House Bill 7157, the enabling legislation for the amendment. CCC worked with the bill’s sponsors and other conservation groups to support the legislation.

The new law allows the tax break for qualifying parcels greater than 40 acres. However, there are qualifying exemptions for smaller parcels if they can be shown to provide a public conservation benefit and meet other criteria. CCC worked to ensure that smaller ocean front parcels may qualify for the tax break, thereby providing an incentive to not develop on the dunes of eroding beaches and to support the conservation of coastal lands. Parcels that are encumbered with a perpetual conservation easement and that provide habitat for threatened and endangered species, provide protection or restoration of vulnerable coastal resources or preserve natural shoreline habitat will qualify for the property tax exemption. Time will tell if property owners will take advantage of this new law to conserve land by forgoing its development potential. CCC would like to thank the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida and other conservation groups for their support of this landmark conservation legislation. We would also like to especially thank Senator Thad Altman for his leadership on this legislation.

Seagrass beds and reefs
Of particular interest to the sea turtle conservation community is House Bill 1424, which added new protections for Florida’s coral reefs and sea grass beds. Both these habitats are heavily used by different age classes of the species of marine turtles that visit Florida’s waters or nest on the state’s beaches. For example, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle can be found in large numbers foraging or resting on the extensive coral reef track offshore of Palm Beach County. House Bill 1424 included the Coral Reef Protection Act. It authorized the Department of Environmental Protection to establish methods for calculating damages to and assessing civil penalties for the damage to coral reefs in Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Dade and Monroe counties. Careless and unintended boat groundings and anchoring on coral reefs do permanent damage. Along similar lines, the bill also included fines for damaging sea grass beds in Florida’s aquatic preserves. This legislation will discourage these activities and provide a mechanism to mitigate any harm that does occur.