Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the “Mother of the Everglades,” once said, “The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.”
With ecological biodiversity that rivals Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Amazonian Rainforest, the Everglades is home to more than 700 wildlife species — dozens endangered, including the Florida Panther and American Crocodile. This immense body of freshwater is also the primary water source for millions of Floridians — an invaluable asset as our coastal groundwater becomes more vulnerable to sea level rise and salt water intrusion. Sadly, over the last century of development in Florida, our immense, slow-moving “River of Grass” has diminished from 10 million acres of wetlands to 1.5 million acres today.
From the vantage point of Everglades’ investment, the Florida House of Representatives in 2019 allocated a historic investment of $682 million for Everglades’ restoration, spring restoration, alternate water supplies, research and remediation efforts to combat algae blooms and red tide, and water quality improvements. On an even-broader scale, Governor Ron DeSantis has signed an executive order committing $2.5 billion to Everglades’ restoration throughout the length of his term.
But funding can only take us so far – and good policy must be put in place to protect this most critical natural resource. That begins with ensuring that real barriers are put into place to protect against further development westward. Our legislation, HB 775, protects past, present, and future restoration investments by strengthening the Urban Development Boundary (UDB) and significantly reducing municipalities’ abilities to develop in these critical areas.
Currently, any and all proposed land use changes are submitted to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which clearly will view proposals through a particular lens. HB 775 will require all local governments whose boundaries are within the Everglades Protection Area to submit any proposed land use changes to the Department of Environmental Protection, which will determine if the land use change impedes Everglades restoration or protection.
Only proposed land use changes that receive a written notice stating the plan does not impede Everglades protection or restoration by the Department of Environmental Protection will be considered complete and approved by the state land planning agency.
So, how does this impact Miami-Dade County?
If passed, any change to the Urban Development Boundary (UDB), a zoning tool in the County’s Comprehensive Master Plan that separates industrial and high population areas from the Everglades, would now require approval from the Department of Environmental Protection rather than the Department of Economic Opportunity. With every change now being viewed through the lens of environmental protection, HB 775 will essentially halt any and all westward movement of the UDB.
It is encouraging to see so many in Tallahassee rallying around our State’s greatest natural resource. And, this critical policy change will ensure that all future municipal land use changes surrounding or within the Everglades Protection Area will support our federal, regional, state-wide and local efforts to protect the Everglades, secure our freshwater supply, bolster our regional economy, and preserve this ecological treasure for future generations of Floridians.