By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist
St. Petersburg Times Online
published March 3, 2002

Sooner or later, we all find our favorite Florida place, our most cherished moment.

For me, it's early morning, when the breeze makes the Spanish moss sway just beyond my front porch. It's the faint scent of jasmine and the low coo of doves.

In this moment, I can put out of my mind the ugliness we constructed out of Florida's lush landscape -- the endless strip centers, the drained wetlands, the jammed highways.

You'd think we would have had enough of the uglies by now. You'd think that after so many years of extraordinary growth in this state, we'd have learned our lesson. We'd treat the environment with more respect. We'd think long and hard before we plowed down another pasture, another grove, another woodland.

But we haven't. And the Legislature is trying to make matters worse.

Bills are up this session that would make it harder, if not impossible, for the public to challenge environmental decisions by local and state governments.

For the past 30 years -- ever since Florida began to regulate the environment -- any citizen could challenge decisions affecting the environment. It didn't matter where he lived, who he was.

This made it possible for environmental groups, with their own lawyers and their own financial backing, to step in and challenge everything from new housing developments to Everglades restoration.

The proposed laws would end that. Environmental groups would be locked out. An individual would have to be directly affected by the decision to challenge it. If he lost, he'd have to pay the legal expenses of the developer on the other side.

To give you an example of what difference the proposal would make, consider the case of Grand Hampton, a planned 900-acre project of about 1,600 homes, as well as apartments, shops and a golf course in already crowded New Tampa.

A year and a half ago, the Sierra Club sued in Hillsborough to stop the project or at least to modify it. The suit is still pending.

According to Denise Layne, a Sierra activist, the bills pending in Tallahassee would make that suit by the club impossible. Only an individual directly affected could sue. He'd have to live right next door, and what if nobody was living right next door?

"This isn't a smack in the face. It's a kick in the face," Layne said. "Community groups will have their hands tied on stopping bad decisions."

It has been a long time coming.

This is the seventh or eighth time that an attempt has been made to shut the public out of the environmental process, said David Gluckman, a Tallahassee lobbyist who is fighting the proposed legislation.

Lined up on the other side are the usual suspects, beginning with developers. The primary opponent, Gluckman said, is the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

"The feeling is," said Gluckman, "the Legislature is more concerned with business rights than citizens' rights."

Three weeks remain in the session. People like David Gluckman will be working day and night to kill these bills. Newspaper editorial writers across the state are beginning to raise a clamor, but nobody I talked to last week was optimistic about the environmentalists' chances. At a recent hearing, Gluckman said, no fewer than 29 business lobbyists showed up to support the legislation.

So you see the deck is stacked. The odds are long. The Legislature is on the verge of throwing 30 years of decent environmental policy out the window -- and the public be damned.