Proposed Everglades protections against harmful development received just one committee hearing this year

everglades 12.11 (Large)
The bill would have established a two-mile buffer zone and approval process for potentially harmful projects.

With less than a week to go before the end of the 2022 Legislative Session, a bipartisan push to establish a large, development-free buffer zone around the Everglades in Miami-Dade County is likely dead.

Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Rep. Vance Aloupis, both Republicans from Miami-Dade, filed twin bills in November that would have created a protective review process for all proposed projects within two miles of the Everglades.

Sen. Annette Taddeo and Rep. Nick Duran, both Miami-Dade Democrats, and St. Petersburg Republican Rep. Linda Chaney co-sponsored the measures.

Under laws the bills proposed, any plan or plan amendment concerning Miami-Dade’s Urban Development Boundary (UDB) would undergo Department of Environment Protection review. That review would include consultation with all federally recognized Indian tribes to determine if it would adversely impact protected lands.

If any portion of the project was found potentially damaging to the Everglades Protection Area, the appropriate local government would have to modify that part of the project so it does not negatively impact the area. In the event a project isn’t viable without that damaging portion, the project would be scrapped altogether.

But with Saturday marking the 54th day of Session, when most Senate committees can’t meet without special approval from Senate President Wilton Simpson, it appears it’s the legislation behind the proposed new Everglades-proximate strictures that is being scrapped.

Rodriguez’s bill (SB 932), filed Nov. 16, never received a hearing in any of the three committees to which Simpson referred it, stalling in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, chaired by Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur.

Aloupis’ bill (HB 729), meanwhile, cleared its first committee with unanimous support Jan. 25. Then Polk City Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow declined to add it to the agenda of any of the eight meetings the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee had between Dec. 1 and Feb. 14, the last time the panel convened.

“Close to $9 billion … in state and federal investment has been put into Everglades restoration, and … it should be our responsibility as a body to ensure that any development within a certain range of the environmental protection area is done in a way that does not negatively or adversely impact those efforts,” Aloupis said in late January on behalf of his bill, which in many ways is identical to unsuccessful legislation he filed in 2019 with fellow Republican Rep. Bryan Ávila and former Sen. David Simmons.

Human-caused damage to the Everglades has been cataloged for decades. Since the 1960s, phosphorus from farming and stormwater runoff has degraded its water quality, disrupting the natural development of its native flora and fauna. By the 1990s, more than 40,000 acres of the public lands were estimated to have been impacted, according to the EPA.

Since then, Florida has spent billions on various restoration efforts, including a $960 million investment Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in November.

In January, President Joe Biden’s administration earmarked $1.1 billion for Florida’s famed “River of Grass.”

But environmental organizations like Tropical Audubon Society, Hold the Line Coalition and Friends of the Everglades have argued some planned large-scale construction projects — such as the proposed 13- to 14-mile Kendall Parkway extension to State Road 836 — could counteract some of the progress those restoration efforts have made.

In 2018, those groups sued to stop the $1 billion project, alleging it would cross over the UDB and damage the wetlands. An administrative judge ruled for the plaintiffs in March 2020, noting the parkway’s potential harm to Everglades preservation and the “meager” improvement to commuting time it would provide motorists.

DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Florida CFA Jimmy Patronis voted in June 2021 to reject that ruling and allow Miami-Dade to move forward with its plans, though DeSantis acknowledged the road may not clear the permitting process.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running to unseat DeSantis in November, cast the sole “no” vote. She issued a statement after the meeting saying the project “will harm Everglades restoration and risk wildlife, agricultural lands, and Miami-Dade’s water supply, while not adequately reducing urban sprawl.”

The same month, Miami-Dade Republican Rep. Anthony Rodriguez, who is leaving office before he reaches term limits to seek a seat on the County Commission, wrote in a Florida Politics guest editorial that the Kendall Parkway is an economic “no-brainer” that will help the Everglades.

He noted the project “satisfies all applicable agricultural regulations” and, because it requires the county to acquire more than 1,000 acres of wetlands for environmental remediation, including the removal of the invasive, water-slurping melaleuca tree, the result will be a “net benefit” for the region.

Juan Toledo, deputy executive director of MDX, which oversees and operates Miami-Dade’s toll roads, told Miami Today in October that the alignment nearest to the Everglades is still miles from it — east of Krome Avenue — and would have no impact on the environment.

It would run through wetlands that have been identified as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, according to Assistant County Attorney Dennis Kerbel, who said the area in question would be used for a conveyance canal whose designs the Kendall Parkway could accommodate.

Rodriguez and Aloupis’ legislation, had it succeeded this Session, would have placed several more obstacles ahead of the project, delaying what has already proven a protracted process. That’s a good thing, according Laura Reynolds, president of Hold the Line Coalition.

“We can’t afford to have our investment in Everglades restoration and in Biscayne Bay to be sidelined by a decision where it’s made not knowing what the future holds,” she said in January while advocating for the measure. “These (restoration) projects take decades to complete and decades of funding asks, and … we have to protect that investment.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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