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Category Archives: Florida

Florida is home to some of the oldest roads in America.  Planet Harmony's Spencer Henderson takes us on a trip back in time, down an old canopy road.  Below you can listen to his essay.  Check back soon for the accompanying video of Spencer Henderson touring Tallahasse's famous canopy roads.

Spencer Henderson: Canopy roads are an iconic feature of rural Florida. These shady paths lined by tall, overlapping trees cut a path through our landscape and our history. An example of a canopy road can be found in Southeast Tallahassee, on Old St. Augustine Road.

Huge moss-draped live oaks, hickory trees and stately pines arch over the two lane road. An enclosed fence extends on each side of the road. Behind it lies active farmland.

This road is essential to the everyday life of farm animals such as cows and horses and wildlife such as raccoons and deer. These animals flock to cool places where they can feed on the vegetation that grows densely here.

And it has been that way for hundreds of years. Old St. Augustine Road dates all the way back to the 1600s. Back then Spanish settlers used this path as a way to go westward from St. Augustine, Fla., through Gainesville, to Tallahassee, ending in Pensacola. St. Augustine Road could be considered the first highway built in Florida. It even predates America!  Even before the Europeans traveled here- Indian tribes passed under these ancient trees for centuries.

Since the road was completed in 1820s it has remained relatively unchanged. But with the charm of this historic canopy comes a modern burden. When rain dampens the old branches, the extra weight causes them to break off and block parts of the road. These trees becomes especially hazardous during hurricane season. But the risk of fallen limbs is a small price to pay for the joy of traveling this storied canopy road. It brings a sense of peace to rural life, and gives us a glimpse into the past.


Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency released their final clean-up plans for the Cabbot-Koppers Superfund site. The 700 pages of recommendations took nearly 30 years to produce. Dominique Shaw, a masters candidate at Florida A&M's journalism program, has been researching the disproportionate toxic burden placed on poor people and people of color.  She tells us that Gainesville is a classic example of "environmental racism." (Photo from the Fine Print)

Dominique Shaw reports:

Many people are not informed about ER. No not the medical drama, but the ER known as "environmental racism," even though it’s in many of our backyards.

Environmental racism is when big industries place hazardous waste or toxic facilities in low income communities, often neighborhoods of color. These facilities pollute the community through the water, air, and soil. Often, these industrial projects get green lit before the community knows what it means to have them move in.

Gainesville, Florida has a neighborhood that exemplifies ER. Twelve schools sit within a two mile radius from a 140 acre hazardous waste site. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated it the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site in 1983.

Superfund is the federal government's program to clean up the nation's uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. They seek to find the people responsible and make the polluters pay otherwise the government funds the clean-up.

In this case, Beazer East, Inc, is being held responsible. The site is made up of the Koppers' 90 acre wood-treatment operation, and Cabot Carbon- a former charcoal operation that has been redeveloped into a commercial space.

The land is choked with 32 different toxins such as dioxin, arsenic, and chromium that came from Cabot-Koppers. Recently, Dr. Steve Roberts from University of Florida's Center for Environmental & Human Toxicology, showed the severe cancer risks residents face because of the dioxin contamination from Cabot-Koppers. The data revealed that people are 3,610 times more vulnerable to cancer in the northern area of the Superfund site than what is allowed by the state.

The sad truth is that this neighborhood is not unique. Environmental Racism has been discussed for over a generation by researchers all over this country. Awareness about poverty, race and low property values can arm communities to fight back against environmental racism.

For more on this issue of environmental racism, check out our story on the first American case of ER to be heard by an international human rights commission, "The Battle for Human Rights in Cancer Alley

Dominique Shaw ER.mp3 1.5 MB

Here is a recap from the Florida A&M University Environmental Law and Justice Symposium Nov. 11-12 at the FAMU Law School in Orlando.

Listen to Region 4 Director Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming speak during the first day of the conference.

EPA Press Release : EPA Announces Regional Administrator for Region 4!OpenDocument

POLL Hometown Democracy debate: Would land-use votes create economic havoc?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

— Signs popped up in yards across Collier and Lee counties a few weeks ago.

Some urge passers-by to vote no, while others plead for support, saying Florida voters deserve a say.

It’s a simple slogan, but interpretations of Amendment 4, also called the Hometown Democracy amendment, have foreshadowed a complex debate over how local governments plan for growth.

“I think people are very suspicious,” said Andrew Dickman, a Collier County environmental attorney and Hometown Democracy supporter. “They feel that the odds are stacked against the little guy … (and) I think this will require local governments to think long and hard about whether they want to approve things.”

Cities and counties map out their plans for future growth in a document called a comprehensive plan. Governments are required to update it every seven years, and also may amend the document twice a year.

Amendment 4 would require a vote before changes are made, though it’s unclear which changes would be subject to a vote.

“It’s not for sewer lines and left-hand turn lights,” said Wayne Garcia, communications director for the amendment advocacy group Florida Hometown Democracy.

The amendment’s supporters say only large-scale projects, such as changing residential property to commercial, would go to a referendum. But opponents disagree.

“It’s so vague, so broadly worded, that it would invite endless litigation,” said Ryan Houck, executive director of the opposing political group Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.

Lawsuits would stem from people who have lost projects because of an Amendment 4-based decision, or groups who think a decision didn’t comply with the letter of the law, said Peter Bergerson, a public affairs professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero.

“The issue is not going to be cut and dried,” Bergerson said.

That’s been the case in St. Pete Beach, the Tampa Bay-area community that opponents often point to as an example of how something like Amendment 4 can turn sour.

In 2006, citizens initiated a law similar to Amendment 4, allowing voters to approve or reject comprehensive plan changes.

Two years later, voters approved a comprehensive plan amendment that allowed for taller resorts along the community’s beach.

Project opponents, who were the original supporters of referendums for comprehensive plan changes, filed several lawsuits challenging aspects such as the ballot language.

The city has paid more than $700,000 defending itself and at least one developer has postponed plans to expand until the issue is resolved, St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said.

“It sounds good to have that responsibility,” Bonfield said. “But when it comes down to really trying to understand what you’re voting on, people have to come to realize they elect people to make those decisions.”

Bob Lee, executive director of the Center for Florida Local Government Excellence at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said passage of Amendment 4 would likely lead to a “politicized planning process.”

“It would now involve a political campaign and expensive litigation as to whether this really even requires a land-use amendment,” Lee said. “The idea of trying to properly plan our communities is a good one, (but) the issue here is how to do that.”

Many local governments across the state have opposed Amendment 4 for precisely that reason, saying it would complicate the already laborious planning process.

Currently, comprehensive plan changes are reviewed by planning advisory boards, a local governmental body and presented during at least one public hearing before going to the state’s Department of Community Affairs for review. That’s followed by possibly more hearings before final approval.

Amendment 4 would boil that months-long process into a 75-word ballot item on which residents would vote.

“It’s like coming into the last episode of ‘Lost’ and saying: ‘OK, what would you think of that? Yes or No,’” Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said. “It’s impossible.”

Cities and counties submit about 9,000 amendments each year. In 2009, that number jumped to about 15,000 mainly to get ahead of Amendment 4, said James Miller, a community affairs department spokesman.

Cape Coral submitted 25 amendments to its comprehensive plan in the past eight months. The community is only about 40 percent built out and Cape Coral’s Assistant City Manager Carl Schwing said the community is trying to shift away from a bedroom community to a place where residents can live, work and play.

The city pushed through comprehensive plan changes because it didn’t want to wait to see what would happen with Amendment 4.

“God knows how expensive that would be,” he said. “How difficult the process (would be) and whether or not developers would want to come to Cape Coral.”

Future growth is what concerns many opponents of Amendment 4.

“I don’t know if (they) realized this, but we have a severe economic crisis going on in Florida and hindering things like a variance for someone who wants to build a guest house,” won’t help, Naples City Councilman Sam Saad said. “That’s construction jobs and money not being put into the economy because we’re waiting for a vote.”

But supporters say Florida’s growth is what caused the economic crisis, and there’s no better time than now to change the way growth is managed.

“We are the taxpayers. We’re paying the money to do all of these projects, and nobody listens to us,” said Faye Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association. “Give the people the opportunity to vote on those changes.”

Growing counties, such as Lee, submit about 70 comprehensive plan amendments each year.

Mary Gibbs, director of Lee County’s community development department, said the amendment will stymie some growth but not all.

Developments that don’t need a comprehensive plan change will continue to follow the traditional track of public hearings and local government review. That means items such as a routine request to rezone a property would be processed without a citizens’ vote, she said.

While not one elected official in Collier and Lee counties interviewed for this report said they support the amendment, at least one group that had been opposed to the amendment has changed its opinion.

1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit organization whose mission statement is to protect land, fight sprawl and build better communities, recently said it is neutral.

“I think we generally recognize for Amendment 4, whether people agree or disagree, it is a general cry for help from the public,” said Charles Pattison, the group’s president. “I think there are legitimate issues being raised by proponents and valid concerns being raised by opponents, yet business as usual cannot be the end result.”