Environmental-protection and home-rule groups call on FL governor to stand up for locals

By: - April 30, 2021 2:27 pm

Gas station. Credit: Getty Images, Joe Raedle

A bevy of bills blocking local efforts to convert to clean energy, protect water quality and protect farm land passed this week in the Florida Legislature and await final review by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

One would prevent Florida cities that have adopted 100-percent clean energy goals from implementing those, instead forcing them to allow the continued use of fossil fuels such as natural gas.

Another defines natural gas as “renewable energy,” granting it certain special treatment under Florida law though it is a major contributor to greenhouse gases causing climate change. That one also preempts local communities from blocking installation of industrial-scale solar farms in their midst.

A third would prevent local governments from regulating gas stations or from requiring them to provide electric-vehicle charging stations.

Environmental organizations, clean-energy allies and home-rule advocates are urging the governor to “save the day” by vetoing those and other bills approved in the Republican-controlled House and Senate that the opponents describe as anti-environmental and anti-democratic by silencing local voters.

The GOP sponsors of the approved legislation testified that it is in the best interest of Florida as a whole to preserve diversity in its mix of energy sources, precluding none.

Sierra Club of Florida says the bills protect big business. They went so far as to issue a challenge to the governor: Veto all 12 bills they consider the worst of the worst, or abandon his claim to be “a pro-environment, Teddy Roosevelt Republican.”

“Floridians recognize the difference between talking a big talk and walking the true walk. We know the difference between greenwashing and the tangible protection of our environment and our people,” said Sierra Florida chair Steve Wonderly in a statement issued to the press. “This is a pass/fail test for Governor DeSantis.”

Florida Conservation Voters also is calling for vetoes.

“As we transition to clean energy, it is vital that our elected officials adhere to principles of environmental justice such as informed consent, public participation, and protecting the interests of vulnerable communities,” said the organization’s deputy director, Jonathan Webber, in a statement that specifically urged DeSantis to veto Senate Bill 896. That bill preempts home rule when local governments don’t want utility companies to build giant solar facilities on farm land in their backyards.

People living in and near the tiny town of Archer, in Alachua County, stood up against big-utility plans to build a industrial-scale solar farm in their midst. Credit: Saint Peter-Saint Paul Community Council

Senate Bill 896 exempts a vote in October by the Alachua County Commission blocking First Solar and Duke Energy from installing a 650-acre solar farm just outside the tiny town of Archer that would provide energy not to Archer but to nearby cities. Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward Democrat, successfully pushed for that carve-out, to the relief of Archer residents such as Geri Crawford.

If not for the exemption secured by Farmer, Crawford said, she would soon have a solar farm “bigger than Central Park” right across the street from her home, just outside Archer, a town of just 1,100 or so residents. She said she supports solar power but opposes local communities having no say when an industrial-scale facility comes knocking.

“Solar is fantastic — that’s not even the issue. But you have to engage the communities that it affects,” Crawford told the Phoenix. “This took their voices away.”

Crawford is president of Saint Peter/Saint Paul Community Council, a group of neighbors in the predominantly Black community who fought the big utility companies. Another solar-farm proposal already is in the works for a site three miles away, Crawford said, adding that she still feels unsafe because of the Florida Legislature’s penchant for preempting local wishes.

The opponents also are asking DeSantis to veto:

/House Bill 839 preempting local regulations of gas stations and EV-charging stations;

/Senate Bill 896 defining natural gas as renewable energy and barring local comprehensive plans from ruling out industrial power plants;

/House Bill 1601 blocking citizens from taking legal action against the burning of sugar-cane fields that sickens them with air pollution;

/A state preemption of local seaport regulations that invalidates referenda adopted by Key West voters to restrict the size and traffic of cruise-ship operations in the Port of Key West. The seaport provision was tacked onto a transportation omnibus bill, and

/Bills overruling local practices by local supervisors of elections in conducting elections and increasing the threshold for voter approval on constitutional amendments.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.