Wetlands could get easier to destroy
CRAIG PITTMAN and MATTHEW WAITE
Builders and developers would take the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of the process, leaving fewer hurdles.
Published July 31, 2005
Florida's builders and developers have launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to make it easier to wipe out wetlands, using their political clout to get help from state legislators and members of Congress.
A developers' lobbyist helped write a state bill that would make it easier to get a permit to destroy wetlands of 10 acres or smaller. When it passed, the builders persuaded 15 members of Congress to send Gov. Jeb Bush a letter urging him to sign it. He did.
Since then, builders have met three times - in Washington and Florida - with top officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that issues permits to clear wetlands.
Their aim: Get the corps to go along with the bill's goal of putting state officials, not federal ones, in charge of issuing permits for nearly half of Florida's development projects.
Getting the corps to defer to the state is "the Holy Grail" for developers, said Frank Matthews, a lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association. The state says yes to wetland permits much faster than the corps, and state rules are less stringent.
Two months after expressing strong reservations about a state takeover, Florida's top corps official now says he's doing his best to make it work.
"We've reinvigorated the effort," Col. Robert Carpenter said after meeting with builders.
Matthews says his clients are just trying to ensure their side gets heard.
But environmental groups who were left out of the recent meetings see it another way.
"Now we know who runs Florida," said Rosalie Shaffer of the Sierra Club.
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The building industry is a linchpin of Florida's economy. In 2004, the Census Bureau reported that Florida permitted more new housing units than any other state - one out of every seven new housing units in the nation. Total estimated value of that new construction: $36-billion.
As they have prospered, developers have deployed a large lobbying corps and donated millions in campaign cash to local, state and congressional candidates. The Florida Home Builders Association had 18 lobbyists working Tallahassee's marble halls this year. The Florida Association of Community Developers employed nine. Some, like Matthews, worked for both.
Records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show that Matthews wrote at least part of the bill that set in motion a possible state takeover of permitting for projects that affect 10 acres of wetlands or fewer. Advocates say projects of that size constitute 40 percent of the corps' permitting workload.
State Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, sponsored House Bill 759. Williams' clients include big development companies such as WCI Communities. Of the $318,000 Williams collected in campaign contributions last year, nearly $54,000 came from developers.
Records show that Matthews sent Williams a draft of the bill on Jan. 13. A note on top identifies it as "Frank Matthews New 1/13/05 Version." He followed up on Feb. 4 with more refinements, and Williams introduced HB 759 four days later.
Williams has denied that developers played any role in pushing the bill. Last week, when told what the records show, she said the bill was her idea but, "I'm not an attorney, I'm an engineer, and Frank and I go back 20 years . . . so I called Frank and asked him for help" with the wording.
Bush warned Williams that backing such a bill might hurt her reputation. When Williams sent him an e-mail explaining HB 759, he sent a terse reply that said he understood the bill but "my point to you relates to your career in the Legislature."
Williams said last week she did not understand what Bush meant. Bush, responding via e-mail last week to the Times, said he wanted "to encourage Rep. Williams to take the lead on environmental issues" but was disappointed with part of the bill.
"I'm a huge environmentalist," said Williams, who during five years on the South Florida Water Management District board approved numerous state wetland permits. "This is one of those really innocent things that has taken on a life of its own."
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State and federal laws say wetlands are worth preserving because they stem flooding, filter out pollution, recharge underground water supplies and provide habitat for wildlife.
So when developers want to wipe out a Florida swamp or marsh to make room for homes or a new shopping center, they need a permit from the state and another from the corps.
Developers argue the corps permit is redundant, but legal experts say there are differences.
The state permit, issued either by the Department of Environmental Protection or a water management district, certifies that wiping out the wetland will not harm water quality. The corps permit looks at broader issues: whether the project is in the public interest and has a significant environmental impact.
The corps approves more wetland permits in Florida than in any other state. Between 1999 and 2003, it approved more than 12,000 permits and rejected only one. The state also issued permits for each of those projects - and the one the corps denied.
Though the corps rarely says no, saying yes can take months or even years. Some on the staff of about 100 juggle more than 200 applications at a time.
Such delays can cost builders money. In a recent Tampa Bay Builders Association newsletter, vice president Joseph Narkiewicz wrote that "the cruelest form of denial is delay."
Unlike the corps, state officials have a deadline. State law gives the DEP and the water districts 90 days to review a permit or it is automatically issued. State records show that in 2003, DEP permits were issued in an average of 44 days.
Two other big differences prompt developers to favor state control. Because their definitions of wetlands differ, the corps claims jurisdiction over 3-million acres that the state does not protect. And the corps looks at whether a project can be built elsewhere to avoid damage to wetlands.
For example, Freedom Commerce Center, a Jacksonville-area project represented by Matthews, got a state permit to wipe out 167 acres of wetlands. But the corps rejected it, saying it could be built elsewhere.
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The top two positions in the Legislature are filled by people connected to the development industry. Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is a home builder, while House Speaker Allen Bense, R-Panama City, made his fortune as a paving contractor.
The bill Matthews helped write calls for the state DEP to report to Lee and Bense by Oct. 1 on how the state can take over the permitting. The DEP has proposed cutting out the corps before, but corps officials would not go along. This time may be different. Builders have lobbied Congress and the Pentagon to make it happen.
In April, at U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw's Washington office, builders from Jacksonville met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley, the Pentagon official who oversees the corps. He doesn't see anything wrong with a state takeover.
"I've always felt that if the state was willing to undertake it, there would be some efficiencies to be gained," Woodley said last week.
Builders from other parts of Florida pushed the state takeover with other congressmen and senators. "We met with everyone whose name we could spell," joked Narkiewicz.
Crenshaw, who sits on a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the corps, has proven a key ally for developers. When they worried Bush might veto HB 759, they enlisted Crenshaw's help.
In a May 27 e-mail to Williams' assistant, home builders lobbyist Keith Hetrick wrote he had "told Trudi that she should also prompt Congressman Connie Mack . . . to be prepared to sign off on a letter in support of her bill being prepared by Congressman Crenshaw's office next week on behalf of as many of Florida's congressional delegation as we can get."
The result: a June 16 letter to Bush signed by 15 congressmen - 13 Republicans, 2 Democrats - urging him to approve the bill. No mention was made of the developers' lobbying for the changes.
On June 20 Bush signed the bill. He did not respond to a question from the Times about whether the congressional letter persuaded him.
Crenshaw - who recently tried to boost funding and staff for the corps' Florida operations - went a step further. He dispatched his chief of staff to a second meeting involving Woodley, this time in Tallahassee two weeks before the bill was signed.
The June 1 luncheon at the posh Governor's Club was sponsored by the Association of Florida Community Developers. It included representatives from major developers WCI and the St. Joe Co.
Matthews was there, as was Williams, who was flown to Tallahassee by WCI (she reimbursed the developer). Except for St. Joe, the developers had all donated to Williams' campaign - and St. Joe executives have given money to Crenshaw's campaign.
Helping the developers' even further is language in a recently passed House funding bill for the corps that expresses "concerns" about the backlog of permits in Florida, and directs the agency to "work with the states" to "expedite permit processing."
Crenshaw, in a written statement to the Times, acknowledged helping developers push to change the permitting.
He is still protecting wetlands, he said. "I would not support making the permitting process more efficient and less wasteful if that meant Florida's environment would be harmed," Crenshaw wrote. "That would be a hollow victory."
On July 20, builders met again with the corps behind closed doors, this time in Marco Island. It included Carpenter and his new regulatory chief, Lawrence Evans, along with Williams, Matthews and developers such as WCI. Everyone liked what they heard from the corps.
"Col. Carpenter was very gracious," Williams said, "and he said we are going to see what we can do to make it happen."
Times staff researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.