Issuing permits for destroying wetlands: This is a job for ...
With more funding, the state could issue permits for some wetlands destruction without federal approval, a state report says.
By CRAIG PITTMAN AND MATTHEW WAITE
Published October 4, 2005
The state can take over issuing some permits for destroying Florida's wetlands from the federal government, a state agency reported Monday.
But the state Department of Environmental Protection said it would need more money, and perhaps more time, to do so.
Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for developers who want to wipe out wetlands, while the state issues a permit that says destroying the wetlands will not cause pollution.
Developers, frustrated over lengthy delays in obtaining wetlands permits, pushed a bill through the Legislature this spring ordering the state DEP to investigate taking over some permitting from the corps - say, for projects of 10 acres or fewer.
In the resulting 12-page report issued Monday, DEP officials said that to do so, they will need more money, as will the state's five water management districts, which also issue wetland destruction permits.
But DEP Secretary Colleen Castille said she does not know how much more money would be required. The amount would depend on whether the DEP took over part or all of the corps' wetland permitting duties.
If the DEP took over all wetland permitting, the report said, then the Legislature would have to repeal the state law that requires permits to be issued in 90 days or less - the main thing developers like about a state takeover.
The report says the DEP is "fully committed to implementing the most effective, efficient and comprehensive wetlands protection program in the United States." But Castille said that if the 90-day deadline is repealed, that would undercut the argument that a state takeover would be more efficient.
The corps has no such deadline.
Because of the heavy demand for federal permits, it may take more than a year to say yes.
Also, state rules on what constitutes a wetland are different from federal rules.
Corps officials estimate that they protect 3-million more acres of Florida's wetlands than the state does.
But Castille said the differences are minor.
"We both work toward the same level of protection," she said.
Corps officials said they had not seen the report Monday and declined to comment on it. Any state takeover will require approval from the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The corps already 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 for the one the corps denied.
Environmental activists suggested the Legislature is unlikely to spend more money on wetlands than it does now. "That's not going to happen," predicted Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.
But Towson Fraser, spokesman for House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said a budget increase "is not out of the realm of possibility" because Bense is determined to make a state takeover work.
"The speaker wants to find the most efficient way to implement some type of wetlands protection program and make sure it's run in the best interest of the taxpayers," Fraser said.
The report also says the Legislature would have to extend the current state wetland permitting program to cover the Panhandle, something Panhandle lawmakers - including Bense - have so far successfully resisted.
A Southwest Florida lawmaker, state Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, sponsored the bill requiring the report. Williams is an engineer whose clients include big development companies such as WCI Communities. She could not be reached Monday.
During the legislative session, Williams denied that developers played any role in pushing the bill. But after the bill passed, the St. Petersburg Times obtained records showing that a Florida Home Builders Association lobbyist, Frank Matthews, helped write the bill.
Matthews has said that getting the corps to defer to the state is "the Holy Grail" for developers, because the state says yes much faster.
Meanwhile, other lobbyists for builders and developers organized a campaign to get 15 of Florida's congressional delegation members to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush to sign it, and to get Army officials to consider going along with it.