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18 words imperil 3-million acres

Published March 31, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - A single sentence added to a bill passed this week by a House committee would wipe out strict protections for wetlands in 20 Florida counties, say county officials.

"It's a huge step backward for wetlands protections in Florida," said Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission attorney Rick Tschantz.

Currently, developers who want to wipe out wetlands in Hillsborough County need permits from federal and state agencies, as well as the county. Nineteen other counties, including Hernando and Pinellas have their own rules, too.

To Rep. Will Kendrick, those county wetlands protection programs are an unnecessary duplication of the state's permitting program.

So during Wednesday's meeting of the House Environmental and Natural Resources Council, Kendrick proposed a one-sentence amendment to HB 957: "In order to avoid duplication and inefficiency, no local government shall enact or enforce a wetland regulatory program." The only exception would be if the county received permission to take over the state's own permitting program.

Kendrick, R-Carrabelle, said the change is necessary to halt expensive, heavy-handed government regulation that undermines private property rights.

"In many cases, not only are they spending considerable dollars to review the same activities, but they are also costing many of our constituents additional dollars for the same requirements that are already required by other agencies," Kendrick told the committee.

Dealing with that additional layer of permitting adds perhaps $2,000 to the cost of a new home, said Frank Matthews, who lobbies for both the Florida Home Builders Association and the Association of Florida Community Developers and who has long advocated doing away with the county permit programs.

"I think the builder position has been pretty consistent: Set the bar wherever you decide and we'll meet the bar - just make it one bar," Matthews said.

The poster child for wastefulness, according to Kendrick, is Hillsborough's wetland protection program, which has a $2-million annual budget and employs 27 people to review permits and check whether the rules are being followed. The Panhandle Republican called it a "duplication of what is already required by the state."

However, Hillsborough officials contend that their wetlands rules don't duplicate the state's. They are much stricter, they said.

For one thing, the state does not protect wetlands of a half-acre or less, but Hillsborough County does. If HB 957 passes, developers won't need a permit to wipe out those smaller wetlands, even though they are as valuable as bigger ones, Tschantz said.

Wetlands disappear

There are other differences. For 20 years, Hillsborough has said no wetlands can be destroyed unless there is a documented need to do so to use the property, say, for a road for access to the land. Only then can county officials consider how developers can make up for the damage, known as "mitigation."

State officials take the opposite approach, Tschantz said. They let developers propose mitigation up front, which then becomes the justification for approving the permit to wipe out the wetlands, he said.

Scientific studies going back to the 1980s have found that mitigation does little to replace natural wetlands, which stem flooding, recharge water supplies, filter pollution and provide habitat for a variety of wildlife. In 1991, a state biologist checked 119 wetland mitigation sites around Florida and found only 17 that could be called a success.

State and federal agencies are supposed to follow a policy of no net loss of wetlands. But a St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery found that about 84,000 acres of wetlands have been wiped out in Florida since 1990.

Property rights

Noting the Times' analysis, Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, said he couldn't vote for the amendment.

"I believe that local governments who are the closest to their citizens have the right and the ability to create more stringent programs if that's what their citizens want," he said. "And in a lot of these communities, citizens have said we want a great environment to live in. We are fine with having more stringent programs."

Among those who voted for Kendrick's amendment: Tampa Republican Rep. Faye Culp, even though her own county was urging her to vote no. Culp said she is hopeful Kendrick will be able to smooth over the objections.

Kendrick complained that the only people opposing the change are paid lobbyists.

"Members, I ask you today what are you doing to protect property rights?" Kendrick said. "Because what you're seeing is people across this state are being permitted almost out of their homes. ... There are a lot of people that says this is a bad thing. Those are people who are usually on the payrolls to get paid to say what they're saying."

Development lobbyist Matthews said he supported but did not write the amendment. Two years ago he helped write a bill sponsored by Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, calling for the state to take over much of the federal government's wetland permitting duties because the state says yes to destroying wetlands faster and more often.

3-million acres at stake

The bill passed last year, but so far federal officials have not agreed to the change, which would result in a loss of legal protection for about 3-million acres of Florida wetlands.

HB 957, sponsored by Williams, once again calls for a state takeover of federal permitting for wetlands of five acres or less. It has one more committee stop before the full House would vote on it.

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 01:20:58]

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