State Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Inverness, who developed House Bill 33 as a result of discussions with members of the Agricultural Alliance of Citrus County, said his legislation is intended to help small mom-and-pop farms and ranches, not large agricultural operations.
It would authorize individuals and corporations to submit requests to the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund to exchange state-owned land for conservation easements over adjacent privately held land that is conjoined along at least 30 per cent of its perimeter.
“Some members of the Ag Alliance brought up to me how it is nearly impossible to get a lease and that most leases under the current system aren't worth doing because they're not as long-term as they need to be,” Smith said. “And that's because the agriculture industry takes a very long view of things, basically generation to generation and not year to year.”
In addition, Smith said, his legislation would also deliver another important public benefit.
“It's also intended to deliver more green space under the banner of the Forever Florida initiative,” he said. “We want more green space for the state. And the best way to accomplish that, I think, is by putting these two programs together - a very pro-environmental aspect of growing green space, combined with a program that helps agriculture, which is where you find our true environmentalists, who have been protecting our lands for generations.”
Smith's plan is supported by Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Cattlemen's Association. However, a number of Florida environmental groups, including Audubon Florida and Sierra Club, have challenged the foundations of Smith's concept.
The underlying goal of the proposed new law, which is not necessarily a bad idea, is not the essential issue, said Charles Lee, the Orlando-based director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.
“The type of transaction that House Bill 33 proposes is not really what bothers us,” Lee said. “It is possible that could be a good transaction in certain circumstances. What bothers us is that such a transaction is already possible now, under current law. And the feature of this new proposal that is objectionable is that it would create a new process that would be sort of a short-circuit end run around the current safeguards in land management that are in law.”
Under existing law, Lee said, if a landowner wishes to make a similar proposal, it would be processed and administered under the auspices of the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC), an entity made up of state agency land management experts who must make an assessment of and positive recommendation on any proposal involving state-owned land under the banner of Forever Florida.
“But the way Representative Smith's bill is currently worded, ARC is no longer involved in the process,” Lee said. “That means that the kind of review that would take place today under current law is cut out of the picture.”
However, Lee said, in addition to objecting to the effective removal of some important safeguards such as ARC review, Audubon Florida also believes a new law is unnecessary to achieve its stated goal.
In fact, Lee, said, he is not aware of any prior attempts by cattle ranchers or other land owners to gain access to public land under existing law.
“There has been a longstanding process, via the division of state lands and ARC, for proposals like this,” Lee said. “But I am not aware that any property owners have ever made a proposal of this to the state.”
And that, he said, begs the question of why any new law is even necessary.
Lee challenged Smith to provide evidence of any past proposals and their resolution.
But the larger issue, Lee said, is that although Smith's concept is not inherently bad, it must be properly administered, with appropriate safeguards in place.
Smith did not respond to requests for comment on Lee's statements.
G.B. Crawford, spokesman for Florida Farm Bureau, said the organization supports Smith's proposal because it is an example of a procedure FFB members have supported for years.
“FFB endorses governmental purchases of land development rights, conservation easements and agricultural easements, as long as they are voluntary and continue the economically viable use of acreage,” Crawford said. “That kind of approach allows better deployment of public resources by stretching the use of tax dollars and it also keeps the responsibility for land management and natural resource conservation within private ownership.”
Smith said he is confident his bill, now awaiting a review by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, will pass the House and move to the Senate, where it (SB 466) is sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Viera).