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Nancy Smith

Florida Forever and Often-Maligned Florida Agriculture: Florida's Twin Weapons against Development

February 1, 2018 - 8:30am

Florida Forever finally found its land champion in Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley.  

The Fleming Island Republican pushed SB 370 through the Senate, culminating Wednesday in unanimous passage of legislation that would replenish the Florida Forever Trust Fund with a recurring $100 million, plus inject it with a one-time shot of $50 million.

This is good news. For nearly a decade, 1999 to 2008, Florida Forever received about $300 million a year. Since the 2008 recession started, the program has been sliced, diced and sacrificed.

Bradley's bill needs cooperation from the House, but as Bradley emphatically said, legislators have a responsibility to preserve the “unique ecosystems that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.”

I Beg to Differ

Unfortunately, Florida Forever's twin -- Florida agriculture -- is still looking for its Rob Bradley.

Devastated by citrus greening, banged up after Hurricane Irma and disrespected by environmentalists, agriculture like Florida Forever deserves to be treated as Florida's savior.

Together, agriculture and Florida’s premier conservation and recreation lands acquisition program, are twin assets in the third most-populous state.

They are powerful weapons in the fight to hold off urban and suburban sprawl, to preserve greenbelt, to invite wildlife and to recharge aquifers.

The environmental group Sierra Club nevertheless is fighting a move by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to see $75 million included in the budget for the successful Rural and Family Lands program. Even Gov. Rick Scott hasn't included the program in his proposed budget, and I have no idea why.

Development imposes direct costs to communities, as well as indirect costs associated with the loss of rural lands and open space. Privately owned and managed agricultural land generates more in local tax revenues than it costs in services.

According to the Farmland Information Center, water pollution from urban development is well documented:

  • Development increases pollution of rivers and streams, as well as the risk of flooding.

  • Paved roads and roofs collect and pass storm water directly into drains instead of filtering it naturally through the soil.

  • Septic systems for low-density subdivisions can add untreated wastes to surface water and groundwater, potentially yielding higher nutrient loads than livestock operations. 

  • Development often produces more sediment and heavy metal contamination than farming does and increases pollutants—such as road salt, oil leaks from automobiles and runoff from lawn chemicals -- that lead to groundwater contamination.

  • It also decreases recharge of aquifers, lowers drinking-water quality and reduces biodiversity in streams.

One personal story: Waking up on late-summer mornings to the sweet aroma of orange blossoms reminded us living in Martin County during the 1980s how close we were to farming. In fact, agriculture was always in the air -- or, so we hoped! When we smelled smoke, we always prayed it was wafting through from the south -- from cane growers burning their fields. One morning I remember the smoke coming from the north. My heart sank. I knew what was happening: developer General Development Corp. was burning thousands upon thousands of acres that abutted the Savannas Preserve so it could build out Port St. Lucie east of U.S. 1.

Isadora Rangel, Florida Today's public affairs and engagement editor, observed in a Jan. 1 commentary, "Only when our pristine landscapes give way to the next strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments will we understand the need for land conservation."

I would say the same of agriculture.

But efforts in the 2018 Legislature to help farmers keep going, to help them stop from having to sell out to developers, are sputtering at best. Certainly Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican and citrus grove owner is trying to do his part in the House.

On Wednesday Albritton outlined a humble proposal to offer a one-time tax refund on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings, and another to offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.

Another idea floated Wednesday would value at salvage level machinery left silent at citrus packing and processing houses because of catastrophes within the industry.

Even lumped together, these measures are unlikely to save Florida agriculture. But, as Albritton told News Service of Florida's Jim Turner, “In the shape that we’re in right now, every penny matters.”

Trouble is, the state can't and shouldn't wait for Washington to come to the rescue of Florida agriculture. The federal disaster-aid package Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida congressional delegation sought has stalled. Legislators, farmers' only protectors at home, need to take action now.

Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters said after Florida Forever vote, "Today’s victory is a clear sign from the Senate" that they want the House to do the same thing for Florida Forever as the Senate did.

Sadly, HB 1353, the House version of the Florida Forever bill, has not been heard in committees. Nor has HB 131, which deals with beach funding.

Sen. Bradley deserves Floridians' thanks. But in truth, these powerhouses -- Florida Forever and Florida ag -- need both legislative chambers in 2018.

 

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith 

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