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Land-buy proposal comes with a catch

A bill to increase spending on environmentally sensitive lands angers some environmental advocates.

Published March 14, 2006

Last fall, when state officials voted to spend $350-million to buy a Charlotte County ranch that's home to panthers and bears, environmental advocates worried that the Florida Forever land-buying program would run short of cash.

So state Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, has filed a bill to double the amount the state spends buying environmentally sensitive land.

But there's a catch: The bill also calls for the state to take over the federal job of issuing permits to destroy wetlands of 10 acres or smaller.

Developers say the change will speed up government permission to wipe out wetlands.

"This will trim the bureaucratic nightmare," said Pensacola developer Dan Gilmore, leading the Florida Home Builders Association's push for the bill.

The prospect outrages environmental advocates.

"I don't think the state is institutionally capable of turning down a permit," said Lesley Blackner, a West Palm Beach attorney who has filed several suits to save wetlands.

If the bill passes, the state can take over only if the federal agency now in charge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, agrees. Developers have lobbied Congress to persuade the corps to go along.

"We have worked through our congressmen to get their attention," Gilmore said. He said the corps' chief Florida regulator, Lawrence Evans, has promised that "if we get it through the Legislature he will make sure it happens."

Evans did not respond to a request for comment. But Col. Robert Carpenter, the top corps official in Florida and Evans' boss, said, "Anything's doable."

State and federal laws say wetlands help stem flooding, filter pollution, recharge underground water supplies and provide habitat for wildlife. Anyone who wants to wipe out a Florida swamp needs both state and federal permits.

The state permit, handed out by one of four water management districts or the Department of Environmental Protection, certifies water quality won't be harmed. The federal permit, issued by the corps, looks at broader issues of environmental impact and public interest.

The corps approves more wetland permits in Florida than any other state. Between 1999 and 2003, it approved some 12,000 permits and rejected one.

Although the corps rarely rejects a wetland permit in Florida, it denied six last year, the most in more than a decade.

For all six, the state had okayed the development. Projects approved by the state but rejected by the corps last year included:

A shopping center near Jacksonville that would have destroyed 167 acres of wetlands feeding a pair of pristine creeks feeding the St. Johns River. A Martin County subdivision that was planned in an area needed for Everglades restoration. And a golf course subdivision near Naples with a 3-mile-long flood control ditch that biologists feared would drain nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

In the past 15 years, when federal policy called for no net loss of wetlands, Florida has lost some 84,000 acres of wetlands to houses, malls and other development, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found.

But developers complain that the corps takes too long to say yes, costing them money. "We're sick and tired of it and we're not going to take it anymore," Gilmore said.

Developers prefer the state process because state law says regulators have 90 days to say yes or no to a permit or it is automatically issued. In 2003, DEP permits were issued in an average of 44 days.

State officials would welcome taking over wetland permitting from the corps "because DEP is already streamlining wetlands protection throughout Florida," said DEP spokesman Anthony DeLuise.

Blackner, however, compares the state's speedy approval of permits to cooking Jiffy Pop popcorn, calling them "Jiffy permits."

Although developers contend that the state and federal permitting process duplicate each other, legal experts say there are differences.

For example, the corps considers whether a project can be built elsewhere to avoid wetlands, while the state does not. That was the reason the corps rejected the Jacksonville shopping center.

Also, because their definitions of wetlands differ, the corps protects 3-million acres of wetlands the state does not. The bill would broaden the state's definition, but not enough to match.

The corps also is supposed to consider the cumulative impact of wiping out so many wetlands. Auditors for the Legislature found six years ago that the state does not do that. The Legislature passed a law that further discourages state regulators from ever assessing cumulative impact.

It says if developers agree to do something in the same area to make up for destroying wetlands - even when scientific studies show that most such mitigation projects fail - state regulators must treat it as if there is no impact at all.

Williams, an engineer whose clients include big developers, did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the other chamber.

Last year Williams got a bill passed ordering the DEP to study the feasibility of taking over from the corps. She denied developers had anything to do with the bill until confronted with records obtained by the Times showing it was partly written by a developers' lobbyist.

Later, Williams asked environmental groups for a bill that she could file for them, said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.

Environmental groups have long been worried about Florida Forever funding, a concern further fueled by the acquisition of Babcock Ranch, the largest conservation purchase in state history.

Land prices have skyrocketed since the program was launched in 1990. Yet the state is still spending the same amount of money a year, $300-million.

So Draper asked Williams to sponsor a bill doubling that to $600-million, although it would mean ending Florida Forever two years early.

To the surprise of environmental groups, she tacked on the permitting takeover.

Draper said perhaps environmental activists could use it as leverage to extend wetland rules to the one area that has remained unregulated by the state: the Panhandle.

Such a change, Draper said, "could be a real net gain for the environment."

Gilmore said that would happen "over my dead body."

[Last modified March 14, 2006, 22:53:02]

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