Florida Lawmakers Pre-empt Localities on Clean Energy Regulation

The Legislature has approved bills to regulate utilities and set clean energy guidelines at the state level. Local governments, along with environmental groups, are strongly opposed.

(TNS) — Despite warnings from opponents that the state is asking for more than it can handle, Florida legislators sent bills to the governor this week that preempted local government regulation of utilities and clean energy regulation.

Each of the efforts was opposed by local governments and environmental organizations, especially those in major urban areas which have been more aggressive than the Florida Legislature in advancing policies with sustainable energy practices. They say that local communities are better suited to make those decisions.

"Clearly the theme of the 2021 Florida legislative session is taking power away from Floridians and consolidating it within the Legislature," said Michelle Allen of Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, on Thursday.

The group is coordinating a letter from local government leaders across Florida asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the preemption bills.

But supporters of the measures say they are needed to stop the encroachment of local regulations, smooth out the uneven application of rules and increase business options.

Every year legislators face a stream of preemption bills, usually sought by a special interest "that doesn't like what they're hearing at the local level" or it is part of a larger national movement, said Melissa McKinley, a Palm Beach County commissioner, president of the Florida Association of Counties and a board member of the National Association of Counties.

While it's a national trend, it is one that is increasing, she said. "Entities that have a special interest have pathways to get what they want if they're not getting it from their local governments, and they have the resources to be able to do this at the state level."

Special Interests with Resources

The natural gas industry was behind SB 1128 that will prevent local governments from banning natural gas as an energy source in new construction and restricts the ability of local governments to decrease the use of natural gas obtained by fracking, which releases methane that is rapidly worsening the climate crisis.

Senate sponsor Sen. Travis Hutson, R- St. Augustine, said the bill was needed as a precaution.

"I have no problem with clean energy. In fact I encourage everyone, our cities and counties to do clean energy," he said. "What I'm afraid of is them taking away energy they think is bad energy."

Opponents said it could legalize discrimination.

"This is a concerning environmental justice issue, as many landfill sites and waste sites are often put in lower-income communities and communities of color across the state," said Allen of Food and Water Watch.

A second bill, SB 856, prohibits local governments from imposing restrictions relating to gas stations, including electric-vehicle charging stations.

McKinley said the measure was a reaction to a conversation by the city of Tampa about alternative fuel vehicles, and the possibility at some point in the future of moving away from fossil fuels.

"There was never anything that was ever voted on," she said. "Nothing came of it, but industry got a little freaked out by it, and now there's a preemption bill that would preempt local governments,from regulating those types of things. It's frustrating when that happens."

The energy and utilities industry also was behind SB 896, which preempts local government from deciding whether or not solar facilities should be granted permits as agricultural land and redefines pulling methane gas from a landfill as renewable energy.

"Solar expansion on farmland is a tangible feasible way to address climate change, while increasing sustainable production," said Rep. Cord Byrd, R- Neptune Beach, in defending the bill this week.

He said the bill was needed to provide "financial relief to farmers" and standardize permitting for solar arrays because "complaints around solar farm installation are proliferated by uninformed neighbors which causes delays on the special-use permit process."

One Exception

Before they passed SB 896, however, they carved out an exemption to help the small historically Black community of St. Peter near Archer in Alachua County.

The community was settled by freed slaves in the late 1800s. Decades of members of the same families are buried in the community cemetery. Relatives of the Rosewood massacre still live there.

But when First Solar and Duke Energy found a 630-acre lot to lease for a solar farm in the heart of the community, the residents fought back.

The area they wanted to build the solar plant is a tree farm in a square in the center of the community, surrounded by homes, said Michelle Rutledge, a resident of the area who helped organize the community opposition.

She said the attempt to lease the land for the solar operation without giving the community any input or notice is an example of "environmental racism ... siting industrial facilities in marginalized communities such as Black and brown communities rural and low-income areas," she said.

"Our families have owned properties for generations, and it takes a lot for members of marginalized communities to acquire property and acquire wealth and sustain it for future generations," said Gerie Crawford, a resident of the Saint Peter Community, one of the few remaining historic African-American communities in North Florida. Her ancestors were from Rosewood.

Two different local government boards of Alachua County concluded the industrial plant, "wasn't appropriate or responsible to place industrial businesses, such as a major electrical utility plant in zoned residential, agricultural areas and areas such as ours," Crawford said Thursday.

Legislators also gave the community a break.

After Rutledge testified before a Senate committee, the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Gary Farmer, D- Lighthouse Point, exempting the Saint Peter Community from the preemption. The House accepted it, but if the bill is signed into law, future communities won't have that option.

"The consequences of passing these preemption bills is the fact that the voices of the most affected will be silenced if the governor signs this,' Crawford said.

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