A measure billed as an attempt to help farmers could also help make way for new development and ease restrictions on farmers who divert streams or damage wetlands.

State Senate Bill 1174 would ease the regulation of farming activities that affect waterways and shift oversight from water management districts to the Department of Agriculture.

It would also expand the definition of agricultural activities under Florida’s “right to farm” law to include fallowing (setting aside agricultural land without growing crops) and leveling (smoothing the grade of land, which could help make way for development). Environmentalists say the leveling exemption is especially worrisome.

“Ultimately it would increase the destruction of wetlands,” said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said the bill “does not encourage or promote the destruction of our precious wetlands,” and that it “prevents abuses” by requiring the land to be used for “bona fide agricultural purposes” for four out of the past seven years to qualify for the exemption.

Siplin described the bill as “pro-farmer legislation,” but environmentalists opposed to the measure warned it could benefit people other than farmers.

When Frank Matthews, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Community Developers, stood in support of the measure during a meeting of the Senate’s environmental preservation panel, that set off alarm bells for Sen. Jack Latvala, R- St. Petersburg.

“When it was explained to me that this was a bill basically to allow farmers to do their own irrigation and keep their water on their property and so forth … I thought that was appropriate,” he said. “But if this is a backdoor way to clear land for development, then I’m not so sure I’m on that wavelength.”

An explanation from the committee staff confirmed Latvala’s suspicions. He asked Siplin if that was his intent.

Siplin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he is committed to furthering “the agricultural industry in the state of Florida.”

“My intent, Sen. Latvala, is to encourage farming,” he said, which is why he required the land to be used for farming for four out of the last seven years.

Latvala said that means a landowner could farm the land for four years, and then spend three years preparing the way for development.

In some cases, that could be true, Siplin said, but not in others.

Phil Leavy, who lobbies for North Florida farmers, said the bill would allow “laser leveling,” a “critical component of all fruit and vegetable harvesting in the state” that was rarely used when the state first crafted its regulations allowing farmers to modify their land.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill could allow farmers to capitalize on the agriculture designation and change their land in ways developers could not. The panel approved the measure unanimously amid pledges to address some of those concerns.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said there ought to be ways to streamline obstacles to farmers without undermining regulations intended to protect waterways.

“This is our water, and the water is in fact a public resource,” he said.

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