The News-Press

March 3, 2017

 

Senate budget chief wants Florida's beaches 'done right'

By Ryan Mills

 

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/03/senate-budget-chief-latvala-wants-floridas-beaches-done-right/98722366/

 

Saying state leaders are falling behind on their commitment to beach communities, state Sen. Jack Latvala on Friday outlined comprehensive legislation that would overhaul the way Florida manages its eroding shores.

The legislation would:

increase funding to $50 million annually;

require long-term planning;

establish a new framework for scoring proposed renourishment projects.

Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, announced his plan at Lowdermilk Park in Naples, with the Gulf of Mexico lapping behind him.

“We’ve got tangible evidence that the health of our beaches is a big return on investment,” Latvala said. “Everyone acknowledges that; even the House acknowledges it. We’re fighting over some of the other economic development programs. Nobody is fighting over this.

“Let’s at least get this done right.”

Latvala's proposal comes in the wake of the Naples Daily News' four-day "Shrinking Shores" series that outlined failures in Florida's beach management program.

The series showed that even though beaches bring in billions annually for the state in tourism-related sales taxes, Florida’s lawmakers and governors typically return less than 1 percent to the shoreline every year. Some years the state failed to deliver the $30 million promised in a 1998 state law, and leaders eventually changed the law to greatly reduce the beach obligation.

The series also revealed how local governments carry the greatest burden of renourishment. In some cases, coastal communities unable or unwilling to manage their beaches have seen their shores wash away.

“The reason we are here in Naples is because of the really outstanding effort the Naples Daily News has put forward on this issue,” Latvala said.

With his 22-page bill (SB 1590), Latvala is advocating what would be the biggest overhaul of the state’s beach management system in nearly 20 years.

Among the highlights, the plan would:

set a $50 million minimum annual state funding commitment — or 7.6 percent of the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund, whichever is less — for beach renourishment and inlet management projects; that would be $20 million more than the previous minimum of $30 million set in 1998;

require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to establish a three-year work plan, identifying prioritized projects to be funded each year;

revamp the way the DEP ranks beach and inlet projects proposed by local communities, setting up a four-tier system for scoring projects and for the first time prioritizing beach projects based on their expected return on investment and economic impact;

refocus the state’s efforts on managing the movement of sand around Florida’s ports and inlets, which are primary drivers of erosion, particularly on the east coast.

Latvala was joined Friday by other state and local leaders, including Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the House. Her bill does not include the $50 million funding minimum.

Peters said Florida’s beaches do more than just drive economic development and tourism. They protect homes, buildings and other infrastructure from storm damage as well.

Northeast Florida communities without well-maintained beaches were hit harder by Hurricane Matthew last October, she said, losing roads and power lines. Too many communities haven’t had the resources to rebuild their beaches to protect from storms, Peters said.

“The beach is a natural protection, and we need to ensure we’re protecting the rest of our infrastructure,” she said.

Collier County Commissioner Burt Saunders, who attended Friday’s event, said the county is proud of its beaches and protecting them is vital.

“I believe they are the most important environmental and economic asset we have in this community,” Saunders said. “I believe our beaches are really the driving force of our entire economy.”

Instead of tackling the individual issues addressed in his bill separately, Latvala said he “wanted to do one big bill that got as much of it as we could.”

“You’ve got to look at all of it together,” he said.

Establishing the three-year work plan might be the most radical proposed change. Latvala modeled it after the five-year plan the Florida Department of Transportation uses to map out road projects.

The proposal is designed to give local governments more time to prepare to fund and construct projects. Currently, projects are scored, ranked and funded on a year-by-year basis.

“We look at everything from scratch every year,” he said.

Latvala’s bill would give DEP more direction on how to rank and prioritize projects proposed by local governments. It specifies what percentage of a project’s overall score must come from each of four tiers of criteria.

For the first time, projects would be scored on their return on investment and economic impact, calculated as the ratio of tourism-related tax revenue to the total amount requested for the project and to all county tax revenue. It also prioritizes a project’s potential to reduce storm damage, cost-effectiveness and the use of structures, designs or technologies to slow erosion and reduce costs.

Also for the first time, Latvala’s plan would give a bump to projects that have been on DEP’s list for successive years without getting funded.

To refocus attention on the state’s ports and inlets, the bill would provide up to 75 percent of the funding for the construction of major sand bypassing projects.

Inlets would receive at least 10 percent of the annual legislative beach appropriation.

The bill also allows for inlets to receive a percentage of the total beach funding based on the proportion of inlet to beach requests; so if inlet projects made up 25 percent of all requests, they would get 25 percent of the money.

Debbie Flack, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association, said Latvala’s bill has all the parts necessary to preserve the state’s beaches well into the future

“I think it writes the next chapter of Florida’s program to preserve its beaches and its brand,” she said of the bill.

Latvala acknowledged that filing the bill is only the first step in the process, but he said his leadership position in the Senate should help its chances.

“Every year is a juggling act with the budget. But usually the priorities of the leaders get funded, so this is my priority this year,” he said.

“I don’t have a higher priority in terms of the 15 bills that I sponsored this year.”