Florida senator helps developers get revenge on conservation boards

Bill awaiting DeSantis’ signature is one of the nuttier ones passed by Legislature

March 31, 2022 7:00 am

Rural scene in Jefferson County. Under legislation awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature or veto, only farmers — or their “staff people” — would be eligible to serve on soil and water conservation commissions. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. Sort of like gazpacho. Or ice cream. (Mmm, ice cream!)

Instead of a cold dish, there’s some white-hot revenging going on in Tallahassee right now. It’s contained in a weird little bill that somehow passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. Ron “I’m A Swim Judge Now” DeSantis.

I fear he won’t give it the attention it deserves. He’s too busy trying to make the Legislature toss out any hint of fairness toward Black candidates in their redistricting maps. But it’s worth everyone knowing about it because this little revenge scheme is going to affect everyone who cherishes our state’s natural bounty.

The bill involves the state’s soil and water conservation districts. Wait! Don’t doze off! This has turned into a fascinating look at how far ruthless developers will go to screw up both local government and the environment, just to benefit their bottom line.

It also involves animal husbandry.

A long and honorable lineage

Most people pay little attention to the soil and water conservation districts. The boards tend to be obscure and generally lacking (until recently) in political drama. “The West Wing” they ain’t.

Yet, as government agencies go, they have a long and honorable lineage, dating to the 1930s Dust Bowl. There are nearly 3,000 of them across all 50 states. In Florida, there are 56, according to the Association of Florida Conservation Districts, which by my calculation is more than the total number of working brain cells in our legislative leadership. More on that in a second.

The soil and water districts do not tax anything. They do not regulate anything. They generally have no salaried staffers. Their board members are unpaid volunteers elected by us voters. These districts are as close to the Ron Swanson ideal of small government as you can get.

Nevertheless, the seats have been filled by scientists, teachers, engineers, landscape architects, accountants, and other professionals. The membership tends to be more distinguished than your average county commission. (Bear in mind that I come from the Panhandle county with the slogan, “You Can’t Spell Escambia Without Scam.”)

As with county commissioners, some board members seek a steppingstone to a higher office. But most seem attracted by a chance to do something good for their community and the environment. They swear in their oath of office to defend our natural resources from waste — how they do so is up to them.

“We’d have workshops on water conservation, and people from the neighborhoods would come and we’d talk to them about what the aquifer is,” said my friend, Susan Clary Zayas, an Orlando communications consultant who served on the Orange County board for 10 years.

Her board also sponsored essay and poster contests in the schools, ran shows about conservation topics on the local government TV channel, and raised money to distribute low-flow shower heads, she told me.

Remember, they’re doing all this without taxing you. Why would anyone object?

These are such low-key jobs that seldom does a candidate spend more than a few hundred bucks campaigning. Yet in 2020, somebody spent a whole lot more than that.

Environmental activist Crosby wins!

Republican Sen. Travis Hutson. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

As the Tallahassee Democrat reported last month, “Several major northeast Florida developers — including one owned by the family of Palm Coast state Sen. Travis Hutson — invested tens of thousands of dollars to re-elect farmer John ‘Bucky’ Sykes to the St. Johns County Soil and Water Conservation District … .The $43,000 war chest — which also included $15,000 from political action committees — was an unprecedented and extraordinary amount of money.”

Their aim: Block environmental activist Nicole Crosby from winning a seat. Crosby told me that she hadn’t planned on spending a penny on the race. Her first inkling that that strategy wouldn’t work came when she got one of her opponent’s slick fliers in her mailbox.

“That was a major heads-up,” she said.

Why target her? Crosby had defeated a developer’s plan to build 66 homes in Ponta Vedra Beach on 100 acres that had been designated for conservation.

It wasn’t just that one victory that made the developers go after her. In a campaign statement published in the St. Augustine Record, Crosby wrote that she wanted “to expand the role of the Soil and Water Conservation District to include educating the public and motivating residents to become involved in hearings on development proposals.”

Sykes, given the same chance at a statement, did not respond. Perhaps that’s why he lost. In spite of all the money the developers spent to defeat her, Crosby won, 54 percent to 46 percent. Her term was supposed to last until 2024.

But a year later, Hutson filed a bill to kill every single one of the soil and water districts.

Talk about a grand revenge scheme! All it lacked was him delivering a version of the Inigo Montoya speech from “The Princess Bride”: “Hello. My name is Travis Hutson. You beat my company’s candidate. Prepare to die!”

“Not ready for T-ball”

If Sen. Hutson’s name sounds familiar, it may be because I’ve mentioned him before. He was trying to make it easier for developers to move gopher tortoises on the cheap. That bill, SB 494, easily passed the Legislature, which never met a measure helping big-money developers that it didn’t like.

But the one he filed to do away with the soil and water conservation boards, SB 1078, ran into trouble. In eight decades, no other state had abolished its conservation districts.

It didn’t help that his denial of a vendetta was couched, a la O.J. Simpson, as “if I had done it, I would have done it this way.” It was equally unconvincing.

He told the Tallahassee paper that if he was going after Crosby, he would have simply abolished that district, not all of them. He did not respond to a question about whether he would have proposed the bill had she lost to his candidate. I think you can guess the answer.

To bail out his bill, Hutson had to do some serious amending. The version that made it to its final committee stop, the Senate Appropriations Committee, let the soil and water conservation districts live, but just barely. And it still booted Crosby out of her seat two years early.

In Hutson’s new version, the only people allowed to run for seats on the soil and water conservation district boards would be farmers, farm workers, retired farmers, or anyone involved in “animal husbandry,” which — contrary to what it sounds like — does not involve marrying a cow.

No more agitators like that Crosby lady! No more professors, engineers, scientists, landscape architects, accountants, or lawyers, either. Only people like that one losing candidate Hutson’s company had backed would be eligible for the seat now.

All the boards would be divided into five districts, with the candidates required to live in the districts they would represent. And every single seat in every single district would be up for election this fall.

In other words, all those folks who got elected in 2020, including Crosby, would have to go, even though their terms weren’t up.

Sen. Jeff Brandes speaks at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting. Feb. 28, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel

One of the senators on the committee, Jeff Brandes, R-Common Sense, was flabbergasted. People who run for sheriff don’t have to have a law enforcement background, he pointed out. No work requirements for legislators either. No other job, other than judge and attorney general, requires any relevant experience or degree.

Given the scarcity of Black farmers in most of Florida, Brandes said, “you’re going to have water boards with zero minority representation.” The bill had so many flaws, he said, “it’s not ready for prime time. It’s not ready for spring training. I’m not sure this is even ready for T-ball.”

A string of soil and water conservation district board members also stepped up to the lectern to point out to the committee everything wrong with Hutson’s bill. That included concerns it might be unconstitutional. (Left unmentioned: All the poor elections supervisors having to add these races to the fall ballots.)

You’d think, after hearing from so many people objecting to Hutson’s bill, the committee would reject it. Instead, it approved Hutson’s vendetta, as did the full Senate and House.

If our legislative leaders had a lick of sense, they would have scheduled the senator to be Will Smith’s next on-stage slapping victim for wasting everyone’s time. Instead, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls were apparently OK with upending so many elections all at once, just to help some developers.

The bill has not yet reached the governor’s desk for a decision, according to Deputy Press Secretary Bryan Griffin. Given his prior hostility to local governments, I think the only way he will veto it is if we can convince him that doing so will strike a blow against “critical race theory,” LGBTQ activists, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Speaking of animal husbandry, though, all the legislators who voted for it got buffaloed.

Farmers with “staff members”?

Sen. Hutson, when called upon to defend his bill, uttered a few statements that could be described as being 180 degrees from the truth.

He said he’d filed the bill because he heard complaints from farmers about the conservation boards. Crosby put in a public records request for any farmer complaints registered with Hutson’s office and the response she received said there were none.

He said his bill was just trying to return the boards to their roots in farming. That sounds good, except that there was never a requirement that the board members be farmers.

And he claimed that WFSU had run a story in 2019 that declared all the boards were utterly useless and should be abolished. I checked with WFSU, and they didn’t.

Instead, WFSU ran a balanced story in 2016 that, among more positive comments, quoted a repeat candidate for the Leon County conservation board — a Tea Party member. (Remember the Tea Party? They were the folks who contended manatee protection rules were against the Bible.) The Harold Stassen of Soil and Water declared the boards should be reformed or dissolved. That guy lost every time he ran, by the way.

Is it possible all those statements by the senator were lies? I hate to use such an ugly word. It could be that the thirst for revenge drove him to become as nutty as a case of Almond Joy candy bars. Under such a mental strain, maybe he couldn’t help saying things that weren’t true.

That would also explain why he sponsored a bill that is, on its face, idiotic.

Nothing is stopping farmers from running for those boards now. They have as much opportunity to compete for a seat as anyone else. They just aren’t running.

Why? My guess, based on years of watching my grandparents working on their farms, is that they are just too dang busy farming to take on a second, unpaid job.

Serious farmers work from “can to can’t” — as in, “from when they can first see daylight until after the sun goes down and they can’t see a hand in front of their faces.” I’m talking about people who farm for their livelihoods, not would-be developers parking a few cows on their land for the greenbelt tax exemption.

The senator, at one point, responded to concerns about his bill causing the loss of expertise on the boards by claiming that farmers have “staff people” who could study complex issues for them.

Gussie Pittman, the columnist’s grandmother, who was a Jackson County sharecropper, holding one of her “staff members.” Credit: Craig Pittman

When I finished laughing, I began to question whether he’s ever set foot on a farm. I am pretty sure my grandmother, who worked as a Jackson County sharecropper, had no “staff people,” unless you count her six children.

Most farmers appear to be fine with leaving the soil and water district posts to people like Wendy Anderson, an environmental studies professor at Stetson University who holds a doctorate in biology. She won her seat on the Volusia County Soil and Water Conservation District by 154,000 votes two years ago and serves as its chair.

She’s tackled development, too — but not in a confrontational way.

“I’ve been working with the homeowners associations and the developers to promote water conservation and low-impact development,” Anderson told me. “I show them how to preserve green space and filter out nutrient pollution.”

Anderson enjoys the unpaid job that this bill would end. Should DeSantis buy into Hutson’s revenge scheme, she is determined to find a way around the new rules.

“Two farmers have promised to put me on their payroll,” Anderson told me. “If they’re going to play shenanigans in Tallahassee, I can match that.”

Her workaround is one that Hutson himself touted. He argued that farmers could hire the scientists being thrown off the boards so they could continue serving, making it sound like an economic boon.

“It opens up a plethora of jobs,” he bragged.

Folks, I take it back. Sen. Hutson is obviously very familiar with at least one aspect of farming. I am, of course, referring to the part of animal husbandry that deals with the production of all-natural fertilizer.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify Wendy Anderson of Stetson University.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.