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Coalitions Unite in Opposition of HB421

By Staff | Jan 26, 2012

Sanibel Island Vice Mayor Mick Denham encourages Floridians to contact legislators to oppose passage of House Bill 421 during a January 23 News Conference staged in Fort Myers.

Opposition to legislation that would reportedly undermine local government’s ability to implement ordinances, designed to curtail hazards posed from the runoff of fertilizers and agriculturally-based chemicals into Florida waters, prompted a series of press-conferences last week.

Coalitions comprised by state, county and community representatives, as well as environmental advocates and professionals affiliated with marine-based industries, joined together in an effort to quash House Bill 421, a bill that would effectively render local fertilizer ordinances as “close to meaningless” says local Sierra Club Representative Katie Parrish.

This issue is of particular importance to Sanibel, as well as the entirety of Florida, as many have pointed to its potential negative impact on the Florida ecosystems and tourism-based economy.

Where confusion as to certain realities existed not too many years ago, today it is generally understood (and scientifically substantiated) that lawns and farm lands laden with nitrogen and phosphorous-enriched fertilizers create detrimental run-offs into area waters during seasonal rainy periods. The chemicals combine, and flow down systems like the Caloosahatchee River to emerge within the Gulf (or right off the coast of Sanibel) and produce a toxic chain-of-tidal events that manifest in the form of expansive algae blooms that annihilate marine life in their wake, litter area beaches with bluish-green slime and red-drift algae, and provoke annoying physical reactions in beach goers with respiratory sensitivities.

In recent years, coalitions of concerned citizens, environmentalists and commercial forces (spurred largely by interests from this community) helped establish a system of protocols regulating the use of fertilizers which ultimately met with widespread municipal support throughout the region. At present, these ordinances provide a crucial system of tools to mitigate the hazards posed by such fertilizer run-off, but opponents of HB421 claim those protocols would be vanquished if the bill is passed.

On the other side of the argument, lobbyists representing corporate interests of fertilizer producers, agriculture and lawn care concerns, have garnered support from a few legislators that believe local ordinances should not prevail over less stringent State regulations.

Cris Costello, the regional representative for Sierra Club, says there has been five previous legislative attempts to undermine existing rules, but each time, the measures met with resounding defeat with what she describes as critical support from Southwest Florida. Costello is among a number who claim legislators are more concerned with catering to corporate donors than acting in the best interest of those throughout the state who stand to be impacted by poor water quality.

“It is clear that we cannot depend on these Representatives to remember why they voted unanimously against preemption during the last session,” says Costello. “Especially disappointing is that Reps. Ray Pilon (Sarasota, Manatee) and Shawn Harrison (Hillsborough, Pasco) are among those looking for some type of compromise bill. We have a lot of work to do.”

Passage of House Bill 421 was initially being considered for passage two weeks ago during deliberations of the Florida’s Community & Military Affairs Committee. At that time, Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham traveled to Tallahassee to confer with local representatives and asset his strong opposition to the bill. His, and a crescendo of other voices, successfully helped prompt a delay in the vote which was put off for consideration this week.

During a news conference held at Centennial Park in Fort Myers on January 23, Vice Mayor Denham joined Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Public Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel and representatives that included those affiliated with the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, Snook Foundation and Conservancy of Southwest Florida, to outline rationale for opposition to the bill.

Denham said the beaches of Sanibel have been distinguished among the most beautiful known in the world, but these would be negatively impacted should the bill be passed. He said only “a noisy few” were pushing the bill’s passage. He reminded that “fertilizer companies do not elect anybody,” nor, said Denham, do they represent what is in the best environmental interest of this state.

Commissioner Judah asserted that HB421 would not only kill jobs, but also result in the raising of taxes. “We would have to raise taxes to restore our local water bodies in order to comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Judah. “We don’t need the state government telling local government that they know best how to improve our waterways. The science demonstrates that land-based nitrogen and phosphorous run off deteriorates our waterways, causing red tide and fish kills.”

Judah said Florida’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry would be devastated if efforts to ensure water quality were crippled. He said tourism represents more than $2.5 billion to Lee County’s economy. “People don’t come here to see our waters filled with blue and green slime; they come here to fish, to swim and to enjoy our beaches… we must beseech state legislators to say ‘No’ to this bill,” said Judah.

Lisa Beever, director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, credited local ordinances with helping restore previously compromised waters. “We are seeing results. Nutrients are decreasing- not only that, but dissolved oxygen is increasing, which is so important for fish and other animals in our estuaries,” said Beever. “Any preemption of local fertilizer ordinances will undermine these results,” she added.

Noting that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said fertilizer restrictions are the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce the pollution threatening area waterways. “These restrictions have reduced the clean-up costs to taxpayers in those communities that have enacted them by tens of millions of dollars- over 13 million dollars in savings already in Lee County,” said Hecker.

Those participating in the news conference went on to praise Legislators like Gary Aubuchon and Matt Caldwell, both described as being supportive of local efforts to oppose HB421.

As of press time, the outcome of pending vote is undetermined. While local opponents are hoping the bill will meet with a defeat similar to previous occasions, most acknowledge that they are at odds with a well-funded lobbying effort that is acting on behalf of powerful corporate interests.

Should HB421 be passed by the current committee in which it is being deliberated, Costello of the Sierra Club says doesn’t automatically result in ultimate passage. The legislative process would see the measure passed to yet another committee where it would be considered all over again. She, along with other opponents, would prefer to see the bill killed as quickly as possible.

Sanibel Vice Mayor Denham, along with the others, is encouraging citizens throughout Sanibel, Captiva and Lee County, to contact legislators and express opposition to HB421, as Denham maintains it poses too great of an adverse impact in environmental and economic proportions.

“This Bill takes away our right to protect and ensure the quality of our beaches and local waterways,” says Denham. “It is a detriment to the well being of our community and state; and must be defeated.”