MOVING & STALLING: A LOOK AT SOME BILLS UNDER CONSIDERATION AT THE STATE CAPITAL

In Tallahassee, state legislators work with colleagues as they push their bills to approval in a 60-day legislative session, which began Jan. 11. Senators and representatives have until March 11 to move their legislation to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for consideration. Several proposals with Keys implications are gaining momentum. Others are stalling. 

HOUSE BILL 1499

More affordable housing for essential services and government personnel could be on the way, if House Bill 1499 gets approval from lawmakers. Introduced by Reps. Jim Mooney, R-Islamorada, and Pat Maney, R-Fort Walton Beach, the bill creates an exception to the Key West build permit allocation system by authorizing 50 units of affordable housing for essential workers, including Monroe County Sheriff’s Office personnel. With Key West designated as an area of critical state concern,  planning regulations must be consistent with principles of protecting natural resources and making affordable housing available. Regulations are also consistent with maintaining a hurricane evacuation clearance time for Keys residents of no more than 24 hours. Since more development could inhibit compliance with the evacuation timeframe, local governments, like Key West, regulate the number of building permits they can issue for new development through a building permit allocation system. Through the bill, an exception to Key West’s building permit allocation system would be authorized, allowing construction of 50 affordable housing units. The bill also states that the sheriff’s office must have a hurricane evacuation plan, which requires all occupants to evacuate 48 hours in advance of tropical storm force winds. The bill received unanimous support from the House Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Feb. 7. It was referred to the State Affairs Committee on Feb. 9. 

SENATE BILL 442

Introduced by state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, Senate Bill 442 authorizes land authorities to assist counties that received federal and state grants for residential flooding and sea-level rise mitigation projects. This includes elevation of structures above minimum flood elevations, demolition and reconstruction of structures above minimum flood elevations and the acquisition of land with structures at risk of flooding. Land authorities act as intermediaries between landowners and government agencies that regulate land use. Acquiring property for conservation use is their core mission. But land authorities, like the one in Monroe County, also provide funding for affordable housing projects, protect conserved land from private acquisition and use and maintain conservation land stewardship programs. The bill garnered unanimous support from the Senate Community Affairs Committee, 9-0, on Feb. 2. It now sits in the Rules Committee. 

SENATE BILL 198

A bill aimed at restoring seagrass is gathering concern over the belief that the proposal would only destroy it even more. Sponsored by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, Senate Bill 198 would grant easements on sovereignty lands for mitigation banking, a practice in which an environmental enhancement and preservation project is conducted by a public agency or private entity to provide mitigation for unavoidable wetland impacts within a defined mitigation service area. Through seagrass mitigation banks on submerged public lands, private companies could grow and manage seagrass on easements that are granted to them by the state. Companies could then sell credits to landowners that conduct projects, such as channel dredging, that ultimately harm seagrass. The bank is the site itself, and the currency sold by the banker to the landowner is a credit, which represents the wetland ecological value equivalent to completion of one acre of restoration. Many have raised concerns over the idea, including the Department of Environmental Protection. “Preserving seagrass resources is not appropriate for compensatory mitigation, because if loss or degradation of seagrass resources are said to be offset by preserving existing seagrasses that are already protected, then there will be a net loss of seagrass resources.” Seagrass serves as a vital resource for Florida Bay and an important habitat for fish in the backcountry. Legislation currently sits in the Senate Rules Committee. A companion bill in the House by Rep. Toby Overdorf. R-Stuart, hasn’t gained traction. Similar legislation passed through the legislature in 2008, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who stated that “authorizing the conveyance of sovereignty submerged lands for a bank selling credits to facilitate the destruction of seagrasses on sovereignty submerged lands elsewhere could fail the constitutional public interest test.” 

HOUSE BILL 537 

If approved, landlords could offer their tenants the option to pay a fee in lieu of the security deposit. Sponsored by Mooney, House Bill 537 doesn’t require a landlord to offer a tenant this option; however, if a landlord chooses to go this route, the tenant could terminate the agreement any time to pay the security deposit in full. Per bill language, the fee is not a security deposit and does not absolve the tenant of any obligations under the rental agreement, including paying rent as it becomes due and any costs and damages beyond normal wear and tear that the tenant may cause. The bill could facilitate use of security deposit insurance. This insurance product insures a landlord against losses that would otherwise be covered by a security deposit or advanced rent. Different insurance providers offer different levels of coverage. Security deposit insurance protects the landlord and is distinct from the more commonly used renters insurance, which provides personal liability and personal property protection to the tenant. Legislation awaits second reading.

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.