Along the Coast: Efforts to regulate plastics galvanize fight for home rule against state

By Mary Hladky

Frustrated municipal officials are pressing state legislators to give them the power to regulate the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.
They want to take action to protect the environment, but a 2008 state law prevents them from enacting local laws that would discourage or stop residents from using products that do not fully biodegrade and kill sea animals that ingest them.
The effort was launched in October by the Town of Palm Beach, which banned single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam containers in June but was forced to reverse course in August after an appellate court upheld the state law.
The town repealed its ban after receiving a letter from the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association noting the court ruling and warning of a possible lawsuit.
Town officials now are seeking support for a recently introduced state Senate bill and companion House bill that would repeal measures in the state law that prevent local governments from regulating single-use plastic bags and polystyrene, best known by the brand name Styrofoam.
The Town Council passed a resolution in October asking the Legislature to vote in favor of the bills, started a petition on change.org seeking support for the bills, and enlisted Thomas Bradford, former town manager of Palm Beach and Tequesta, to drum up support from legislators and other cities, towns and counties.
“It is not a partisan issue,” Bradford said. “It is about doing something for the environment.”
But it is also yet another attempt by local governments to take back control of matters now regulated by the Legislature. Local officials maintain the Legislature is stripping them of governing powers that are enshrined in the state constitution and known as “home rule.”
“There is a larger issue. It is the attack on home rule and the limitations that have been placed on cities from enacting regulations we feel are appropriate to our individual, specific needs,” said Palm Beach Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar.
“Having a one-size-fits-all policy is not appropriate,” he said. “The plastic ban is just one example.”
Boca Raton, at the urging of City Council member Monica Mayotte, passed a resolution similar to Palm Beach’s on Jan. 14, a day after hearing passionate presentations about the harms caused by plastics from representatives of Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy organization, and the Surfrider Foundation, which advocates for oceans and beaches.
The nonprofit Boca Save Our Beaches urged residents to tell council members they support the resolution.
“This is first and foremost a home rule issue,” Mayotte said. “This is the first step.”
Delray Beach passed a resolution in November, Gulf Stream passed one in December and Ocean Ridge in January.
“We’re not supporting the Town of Palm Beach’s efforts at prohibiting plastic straws or plastic bags or anything like that,” said Gulf Stream Town Manager Greg Dunham. “We’re just supporting Palm Beach’s efforts at overturning the state’s preemption of towns and cities to do that on their own.”
“The state chips away at (home rule) every chance they can,” Gulf Stream Mayor Scott Morgan said. “We need to protect our own ability to make our own ordinances, respond to our own residents. …”
Bradford doesn’t know how many other cities and towns have passed resolutions because they often do not let him know when they do. But he thinks there is significant support for the effort.
“These state legislators think they know what the local constituents want, when in reality it is the cities and counties that know,” he said.
Local governments have been fighting to regain home rule for years, but every year more bills are filed that would preempt them from taking action on issues of local concern.
“It is an issue every single year. It is the same thing this year,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities. “It is always ‘we know better than you.’ There are things that need to be done on a local level.”
A January report by Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute, said the trend began in 1987 when the Legislature passed a law that prohibited local regulation of firearms.
“Since the 1987 firearms law, the appetite of the Florida Legislature to preempt local actions has grown enormously,” the report states.
From the 2017 though the 2019 legislative sessions, 119 bills were filed that contain some form of preemption, although only 11 of them became law.
The number increased each year, with 36 bills filed in 2017, 38 in 2018 and 45 in 2019. One month before the bill filing deadline for the 2020 legislative session, which began in mid-January, 16 bills had been filed, running the gamut of issues.
It is clear “there is a concerted and strategic effort in the Florida Legislature to strip local government of its power to act on a wide variety of issues,” the report states.
One of those is the regulation of vacation rentals that for years have drawn complaints from neighbors about out-of-control parties, loud noise and traffic.
The Legislature has been hostile to allowing local governments to set rules for them. In 2011, lawmakers prohibited cities from regulating short-term vacation rentals. In 2014, the Legislature relented a bit, allowing local governments a small amount of control.
Since then, more bills have been introduced to take away local government authority. While those bills stalled, new ones have been filed this year that would prevent local governments from enacting any regulations.
Garnering much attention last year, the Legislature banned local governments from regulating vegetable gardens on residential property.
Even if this year’s effort by local governments to regulate single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam does not succeed, the issue is not likely to go away.
Coastal cities and towns are keenly aware of the harm caused by plastics that break up but do not biodegrade in landfills, rivers and the ocean.
Sea birds, fish, turtles and other marine life ingest it and die. Or they get tangled up in the plastics, leaving them unable to eat or swim.
A report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic trash than fish by weight if nothing is done.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton drew national attention in October when it posted a photo on Facebook that went viral of a baby turtle that died after washing ashore. A necropsy found that the hatchling had ingested 104 small pieces of plastic.
From the standpoint of local governments, the one bright spot in the battle over local control came last year when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have blocked them from banning single-use plastic straws.
Delray Beach is among the cities that have since enacted plastic straw bans. The ban, effective Jan. 1, imposes a $100 fine for the first offense. Hospitals, nursing homes, schools and private use are exempt.
“In fact, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation has encouraged Florida residents, schools and businesses to reduce plastic straw use,” DeSantis wrote. “Under these circumstances, the state should simply allow local communities to address the issue through the political process. Citizens who oppose plastic straw ordinances can seek recourse by electing people who share their views.”

Jane Smith and Steve Plunkett contributed to this story.

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