Beware legislative land grab
The Florida Legislature is seeking to give thousands of acres of public lands to private landowners, threatening citizens' shoreline access and jeopardizing safeguards for rivers and lakes. Floridians should be alarmed. At risk is the shoreline that is under water part of the year. Conserving the shore guards against flooding and allows vegetation to filter pollutants. If privatized by lawmakers, the shoreline now owned by all Floridians could be fenced off, mined, logged and possibly developed.Some background: When Florida became a state in 1845, it received title to lands under its water bodies. The aim was to ensure open navigation. There was no debate that these water bottoms would remain state property. Through the years, phosphate companies, agricultural operations and other interests made a number of claims to sovereign lands, but the courts upheld the public's ownership. The high water mark is used to determine the boundary between state land and private property. The courts have defined the "ordinary high water mark" as where a waterway extends during a normal rainy season, a sensible recognition that waterways naturally rise and fall. House Bill 1103, sponsored by Rep. Tom Goodson of Titusville, and Senate Bill 1362, sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays of Umatilla, would change the definition of the high water mark so it would cover "the highest reach of a navigable nontidal water body as it usually exists when in its ordinary condition and is not the highest reach of such water body during the high water season." So the shoreline that is submerged during the rainy season along most of the rivers and lakes in Florida would be taken from the public. This is a drastic change. Since the 1800s, the high water mark has been considered where water extends during the rainy season. The massive land transfer, affecting as much as 500,000 acres, would give private interests a greater claim to mine, develop or otherwise take what had been the public's resource. Access to the shore by outdoor enthusiasts could be prohibited. Landowners complain the public can be careless and destructive, littering lands along waterways. But this hardly justifies such a massive land giveaway. More likely, the intent is to bolster special interests' ability to exploit the shoreline — or force the public to buy it back to ensure its conservation. Florida's existing submerged land law benefits the public and protects our waterways. There is no reason for the change — other than to help special interests at the expense of citizens. Past legislative schemes have failed as citizens protested and members of both parties rallied against the land grab. This one deserves defeat as well.