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State lawmakers Drake and Gainer hear land use, environmental concerns

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News
State Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, met recently with constituents in Freeport, hearing concerns on land use and environmental issues, among other topics. State Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, also attended the Friday session at Freeport City Hall.

FREEPORT — State Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, and state Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, spent part of Friday afternoon at Freeport City Hall, hearing from constituents on a range of issues, but with land use and environmental issues dominating much of the meeting.

Among the more vocal participants in the Friday meeting with the two legislators representing Walton County in Tallahassee was David Herring, a cattle farmer in northern Walton County.

Spurred recently by a Gulf Power proposal to build a solar electric power generation facility on more than 850 acres in the northern part of the county — Walton County commissioners eventually rejected the proposal — Herring has been working through the county government in an effort to protect the county's farmland from development.

State Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheanna, shown here in a photo from the Florida House of Representatives, met recently with constituents in Freeport. At the meeting, which included state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, constituents expressed concerns on land use and environmental issues, among other legislative matters.

On Friday, Herring made a similar case to Gainer and Drake, particularly in connection with Senate Bill 1008 and Senate Bill 856, both sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, on the state's northern Atlantic Ocean shores.

Senate Bill 1008 would establish that solar electric facilities "shall be a permitted use in all agricultural land use categories in a local government comprehensive plan and all agricultural zoning districts within an unincorporated area," although such facilities must comply with setback and buffer area requirements set by the local government.

Unlike current law, Senate Bill 1008 would include solar electric facilities of less than 75-megawatt generating capacity within the purview of the state. The Gulf Power facility recently proposed for northern Walton County would have had a generating capacity of 74.5 megawatts, specifically to get around current law which subjects solar generating facilities of 75 megawatts or more to state regulation.

In 2010:Walton County rejects 900-acre Gulf Power solar energy facility

Solar panels lay flat at noontime on a recent afternoon as they track the sun at Gulf Power's Blue Indigo Solar Energy Center in Jackson County. Legislation introduced recently in the Florida Legislature would prohibit local governments from any significant regulation of such facilities.

Senate Bill 856 would prevent local governments from implementing any law, policy or resolution that would prohibit or restrict construction of new energy infrastructure, or that would be more stringent than current state regulation of natural gas, petroleum, electric or renewable energy enterprises.

"These bills don't look at our kids. They don't look at our future," Herring told Gainer and Drake during the Friday meeting with the state legislative delegation.

"Our local government knows better" how to regulate energy infrastructure, Herring said.

Senate Bill 856 would prevent local governments from implementing any law, policy or resolution that would prohibit or restrict construction of new energy infrastructure, or that would be more stringent than current state regulation of natural gas, petroleum, electric or renewable energy enterprises.

While not specifically addressing the two bills referenced by Herring, Gainer did say that he would oppose any legislation that would limit "home rule" — the local determination of laws, policies and regulations.

"The bigger issue here is home rule," Gainer told Herring.    

Senate Bill 856 was referred to the Regulated Industries, Community Affairs and Rules committees on Feb. 4. Senate Bill 1008 was referred to those same committees on Feb. 10.

If passed in their current form, both bills would become effective on July 1 of this year.

Gainer and Drake also heard Friday from Kelly Layman, founding board member of the nonprofit Safe Water for Walton. Formed in 2017, the organization is focused on the safety and the availability of water in the Choctawhatchee River and Choctawhatchee Bay basins.

Layman asked the two lawmakers to be particularly vigilant with regard to "toilet to tap" legislation that could allow treated wastewater to be recycled into tap water.

"We have not seen any details on this legislation this year, but it will probably be back in some form, and we urge you to closely monitor this legislation," Layman said.

More:Where does your household water come from? How is it treated?

Layman also directed the two lawmakers' attention to Senate Bill 1054, sponsored by Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola.

Broadly, the bill addresses how the Florida Department of Environmental Protection addresses any needed remediation of potable water supplies, and specifically requires the FDEP to make information about areas of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination available to affected local governments. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals manufactured and used in a variety of industries.

Gainer and Drake also heard Friday from Dr. Carolynn Zonia, an emergency physician and Walton County activist who asked for the two lawmakers' support of Senate Bill 546, also known as the Stop Fracking Act.

The bill would prohibit "extreme well stimulation," defined as injection of fluids into rock formations to increase production of an oil or gas well.

Zonia argued that Florida's underground geology comprises limestone and clay, meaning that chemicals injected into the ground during fracking could enter the aquifer from which the state's communities and individuals get their drinking water.

"As the Sunshine State, we should pursue renewable energy" rather than fossil fuels, Zonia told Gainer and Drake.

Neither lawmaker provided much in the way of detailed comment on the issues presented Friday, but after the meeting, Gainer said he hadn't heard any concerns that were particularly surprising to him.

"We're pretty much in sync with everybody," Gainer said in a general comment on the meetings with constituents like Friday's session.

Friday's session was the first one held in Freeport, according to Drake, and also was the most well-attended of the sessions thus far this year.