Pressure for permission

When getting a wetlands permit takes too long, call your congressman. Republican. Democrat. Makes no difference.

Published May 23, 2005


In the mid 1990s, Florida politicians wanted to build a new university on swampy land near Fort Myers that was owned by an influential campaign contributor who wanted to develop all the land around it.

Their plan involved destroying 75 acres of wetlands, which required permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After months of study, the corps had not made a decision.

Col. Terry Rice, who ran the corps in Florida, was on an airboat in the Everglades when his cell phone rang. The caller, Rice recalled, began "cussing me out" for delaying the permit for Florida Gulf Coast University. The caller: Connie Mack, then Florida's Republican U.S. senator.

"He used some terms over the telephone that weren't very flattering," Rice said. "It wasn't a pleasant conversation."

Mack says he doesn't remember the call but doesn't dispute it. Rice approved the permit to put FGCU on Ben Hill Griffin III's land in 1995. Two months into construction, the site was flooded with three feet of water, and since it opened, the university has been caught three times illegally pumping water off its campus into adjacent swamps.

Mack's call wasn't unusual. Public interest is supposed to drive the corps' decisions, but politicians often lean on the corps on behalf of private interests.

Politicians from the president on down say they want to preserve wetlands. But when a well-connected constituent wants help to destroy wetlands, elected officials are quick to oblige.

Because the corps depends on Congress for funding, a call or letter from a member of Congress sends a strong message: Approve the permit, or face the consequences.

Members of both parties help developers win permits to wipe out wetlands.

Last year, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings intervened with the corps on behalf of a longtime Democratic supporter who wanted to build homes on 4 acres of wetlands in Palm Beach County. About the same time, U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, was pushing the corps to approve filling in nearly an acre of mangroves and open water so a campaign contributor could build a new condominium in Palm Beach County.

The corps' main Florida office in Jacksonville gets so many congressional calls, letters and e-mails its staff uses a computer to track them. During a typical three-month period last year, senators and members of Congress called 34 times and wrote 30 letters about corps permit applications.

"There are times I have gotten incredibly mad at having to answer all these congressional inquiries," said John Hall, who recently retired after 15 years as the corps' Florida regulatory chief. "It takes our time away from doing our jobs."

But top corps officials see nothing wrong with it.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate that they do this," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of the Corps of Engineers. "We work for the will of the people as expressed through Congress."

Members of Congress say contacting the corps about developers' permits is just part of the job.

"Believe me, I've been after the Army corps on a number of projects," said U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River, who last year encouraged the corps to cooperate with Pasco County's plan to extend Ridge Road through wetlands in a nature preserve.

Longtime Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who recently retired, contends his letters to federal agencies on behalf of developers didn't carry much weight.

"I think the agencies are experienced in what that means - not to change a decision but to request them to review it on a professional and timely basis," Graham said.

But congressional inquiries have a big impact. Even a letter asking questions signals an applicant has political clout.

"It puts the corps on the spot," said Rice, now retired. "It results in a quick decision, but not necessarily a good decision."

Approval takes time

Although the Clean Water Act says it should be hard to destroy wetlands, the corps rarely says no. Still, it can take months to say yes.

For developers, delays can be extremely costly.

"You're talking about substantial sums of money," said Charles "Chuck" Schnepel, who heads the corps' Tampa office. "A decision needs to be made very quickly."

The corps' goal is to process a permit in four months or less, Schnepel said, but the workload makes that a "very lofty" goal.

The corps is supposed to follow a series of steps to ensure that a project is in the public interest and that there's no alternative to destroying wetlands.

Congressional pressure can short-circuit that process. Vic Anderson, who recently retired after 30 years with the corps, said his co-workers joked the "public interest review" required by federal regulations ought to be called "special interest review."

Public interest, he said, rarely enters into it.

Consider a proposed apartment complex in Orlando called College Suites at Orpington.

In April 2003 U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, fired off a letter to the corps' top Florida official about College Suites, proposed for 21 acres about a mile from the University of Central Florida. It would wipe out 10 acres of wetlands.

Corps permit reviewer Steve Brooker visited the site and found half of it covered in thigh-deep water flowing into the Econlockhatchee River.

"Is this really where we want to put an apartment complex?" Brooker said, shaking his head. "Knowing you're supposed to avoid impacts to wetlands, and they're half the site?"

Feeney wrote to Col. Robert Carpenter, pointing out UCF's economic importance and its need for student housing.

"Unfortunately, the project seems to have hit an impasse due to (the corps') refusal to issue a fill permit based on an assessment that somehow the project will impact wetlands in the area," Feeney wrote. "I would respectfully request a review of the project so that I might clearly understand what issues are preventing the corps from issuing a permit."

A month earlier, developer Udo Garbe of Winter Park contributed $1,000 to Feeney's re-election campaign. Records indicate it was Garbe's first-ever campaign contribution.

Feeney sent his letter at the behest of Garbe's attorney, Warren E. Williams. Records show Williams called Feeney and sent him a letter and talking points to use in prodding the corps. The attorney also complained about Brooker.

"He has completely forgotten about the corps' obligation to allow development when the community needs outweigh the environmental desires of a few," Williams wrote of Brooker.

Actually, federal regulations say that "most wetlands constitute a productive and valuable public resource, the unnecessary alteration or destruction of which should be discouraged as contrary to the public interest."

Williams wrote that Feeney's help was crucial.

"We do know it has been successful in the past when congressional leadership has provided some show of interest in a project," Williams wrote. "The corps hierarchy pays more attention, which in turn usually allows for the better evaluation of a particular situation."

Campaign records show that Rep. Shaw sent his letter to the corps endorsing a Palm Beach condominium project planned by Toll Brothers just two days after company vice chairman Bruce Toll donated $2,000 for Shaw's re-election. The company has also donated extensively to the GOP and other candidates.

"We've sent many letters like this," said Shaw spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. "It's a common procedure when people want us to help speed things along."

Gitcho denied the contribution had anything to do with the letter to the corps. She refused to provide a copy of the letter to the St. Petersburg Times because, she said, it "wasn't written for public consumption."

Waiting for action

The biggest concern members of Congress usually raise is how long the corps takes to approve a permit. Hastings, the Democratic congressman, even suggested a deadline.

Hastings wrote in his May 3, 2004, letter that the Cornerstone Group needed its permit to build a 302-home development called Sonoma Bay in Riviera Beach no later than May 20.

Cornerstone and its top executives have donated heavily to the Democratic National Committee and to state and national Democratic candidates. A Hastings staffer, StephanieDesir-Jean, said no one mentioned the contributions when Cornerstone asked for help with its permit.

Corps officials wrote back that they would probably say yes to the permit soon, but had to give the public until May 22 to comment.

Corps reviewers say they are always under fire from developers to move quickly, but pressure mounts when congressional intervention makes their bosses side with developers. "You find yourself fighting a second front," Brooker said.

Anderson said there have been times when "I've felt like some kind of kung fu artist" because developers, lawyers and his own bosses pressured him.

Consider Meadow Pointe, a housing development proposed on Lake Irma near Orlando. Lake Irma is an Outstanding Florida Water, giving it extra environmental protection. But Meadow Pointe would destroy 5 acres of wetlands flowing into the lake.

Brooker suggested changes to minimize its impact. So the developers went over his head.

The development company's partners include former Altamonte Springs mayor Hugh Harling, and their attorney is Ken Wright, a member of President Bush's legal team during the disputed 2000 election.

Wright called U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, who represents that district.

"I expressed to Ric that I was frustrated," said Wright. "Every project it seems you're backed up waiting on the corps."

The congressman demanded a meeting with Brooker's bosses in a November 2001 letter to Col. Greg May, who oversaw the corps' Florida operations. May said he took such letters "very seriously" but "never got the sense that I was being pressured one way or the other to make decisions."

Eleven months later, the corps approved the permit without Brooker's requested changes. Brooker refused to sign it.

"I just said, I ain't issuing this s---," Brooker said. He said he was later passed over for promotion and told he is "too confrontational."

'Political realities'

Sometimes the pressure comes from well-connected lobbyists.

John Studt, who ran the corps' national regulatory program until 2002, said lobbyists often tried to sell him on a Florida wetlands permit.

In 1998, for instance, Lee County was determined to extend Daniels Parkway 3 miles. Because the road passed through 40 acres of wetlands, it required a corps permit.

The corps could not issue the permit without an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how it would affect Florida panthers, the rarest land mammal on the endangered species list.

Kim Dryden, a wildlife agency biologist, determined extending the road would eliminate about 40 acres of panther habitat and open 2,000 acres to development.

In the previous 10 years, four panthers died on that road. New development would have an impact by increasing traffic.

Lee could compensate for the impact by spending $1.7-million to preserve 252 acres of panther habitat elsewhere, she suggested.

Instead, Lee spent $156,000 on a Washington lobbying firm, Dawson & Associates, founded by Robert Dawson, who was civilian head of the corps under President Reagan. The firm includes former corps officials, retired corps generals, former members of Congress and former Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The lobbyists filed reports with Lee County detailing their work.

Dawson met with corps leaders in Atlanta, and brought with him a retired general who once oversaw the corps nationwide.

The lobbyists met with Florida's two senators, Mack and Graham, and the Republican congressman representing Lee, Porter Goss, now CIA director.

All three wrote to the head of the wildlife service. Dawson lobbyists also gave the senators and Goss talking points, though it's unclear they were used.

"It seems to me the project is being subjected to excessive requirements," said one talking point. Another said, "I am confident you share my interest in finding ways of resolving conflicts between economic development activities and ecosystem restoration."

The lobbying was far from subtle. At a meeting with Jay Slack, the top Fish and Wildlife Service official in South Florida, lobbyist Jonathan Deason said he explained "the realities" that Slack "needs to appreciate." They included the lobbying firm's access to the corps' chain of command, the firm's ability to influence Slack's bosses in Washington and the firm's "involvement with the congressional delegation (Graham, Mack, Goss)."

"Slack was very receptive and indicated a strong willingness to work with us to get this problem solved," Deason reported.

The lobbyists also got Goss' chief of staff to call corps officials in Jacksonville "to urge them to be supportive of the county."

Then came the biggest squeeze of all. The lobbyists got help from Mack and Goss in persuading Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington to back the wildlife service into a corner. Gorton, who chaired a wildlife service oversight subcommittee, wrote budget language that the Fish and Wildlife Service must "ensure that measures designed to minimize the impacts on the Florida panther related to the Daniels Parkway extension are reasonable and conceived properly."

"Congress is saying: "Do this,"' Slack said.

So the agency made Lee County preserve 94 acres, not 252, and the corps approved the permit.

The usual treatment

Panthers lost out again when a Naples developer, Vineyards Development Corporation, got help from Florida's senior senato r on a Collier County project next to Picayune Strand State Forest.

Vineyards is controlled by the Procacci family, which made a fortune in tomatoes. The family has given generously to various U.S. senators.

The Procaccis wanted to build Naples Reserve, 552 homes and a pair of 18-hole golf courses on 691 acre s that would wipe out 109 acres of wetlands in prime panther habitat.

The Procaccis offered to create 2 acres of wetlands on the site and 9 acres elsewhere, and preserve some existing wetlands. That net loss of 98 acres of wetlands was unacceptable, the wildlife service decided.

"It was one of the worst of its class," said Andy Eller, who reviewed the project for the agency.

But Sen. Graham was pushing the agency to hurry. In March 2000, Graham noted in a letter to Eller's boss that the developers were frustrated with delays.

"Because of the lengthy period of time which has already expired, I would ask that this process be expedited if at all possible," Graham wrote. "I would appreciate your providing me with a status report of the progress of this opinion."

That's not unusual, Graham said. "That's the sort of standard letter you write on behalf of a constituent who has problems with a federal agency," the ex-senator said.

Graham also wrote to the corps, and his chief of staff, Mary Chiles, asked the wildlife service to speed things up. She noted the developers didn't like Eller and asked if they could meet with higher-ups.

"Elected officials always say they just want to facilitate a dialogue but rest assured, a threat is implied," Eller said.

The wildlife service fought the project, but the corps approved the permit anyway.

Threat to sanctuary

An even more controversial golf course development in the same area got a boost from Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.

Mirasol is planned for 1,766 acres near Bonita Springs where 1,500 acres are wetlands. The developers want to build a ditch 3 miles long, 4 feet deep and 200 feet wide that the EPA says, with surrounding development, will destroy more than 2,000 acres of wetlands.

The "Mirasol flow-way" could drain nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an 11,000-acre preserve owned by Audubon of Florida, warned Eller, who reviewed the project for the wildlife agency. An EPA official, Bruce Boler, raised similar warnings about the project, which also would destroy 30 acres of wetlands preserved as compensation for an earlier development in the same area.

"I said, "How is this the least environmentally damaging site?"' Boler said.

But Nelson and Goss had other concerns.

Staffers for both called the EPA's southeast administrator about the project and offered to set up a meeting with the developers.

Nelson's staff also arranged a meeting in Nelson's Orlando office - hundreds of miles from the development - between the developer and top South Florida wildlife officials. But not Eller.

As a result, Eller said his bosses backdated some paperwork to speed up its report and threatened to give him a poor job review if he concluded the project jeopardized panthers.

"They said I needed to be sensitive to the politics of the office," said Eller, who was eventually taken off Mirasol. He was fired after he went public with his complaints.

He has challenged his firing, but says he understands why his bosses tried to help the developer. "Hey, I would've done the same thing if a senator of the United States was telling me you need to get your a--- moving," Eller said.

In an interview, Nelson said congressional intervention is wrong.

"A constituent has a right to be heard, but we don't want to appear to put pressure on a decision," Nelson said. "We don't do that."

But pressed about Mirasol, Nelson acknowledged his frustration when the corps takes a long time reviewing a permit. "There's no excuse for somebody putting a file on a desk and not taking any action," he said.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com or 727 893-8530. Matthew Waite can be reached at waite@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8568.