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Politics

No wetlands fight for EPC

Commissioners won't let their environmental agency challenge a bill undercutting it.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published April 12, 2007


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TAMPA - Hillsborough County's environmental agency won't be allowed to fight a bill eliminating its ability to protect wetlands from being destroyed by development, county commissioners voted Wednesday.

Officials at the county's Environmental Protection Commission were told by a majority of commissioners who oversee the agency that state and federal rules suffice in protecting wetlands from development, and that it was wasteful to have separate local regulations.

"Without question, there is duplication," said Commissioner Brian Blair, who chairs the EPC. "We have no evidence that our wetlands are declining. That's been stated by scientists."

Blair was joined by board Chairman Jim Norman and Commissioners Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham and Kevin White in denying agency officials permission to even write a letter protesting the measure. The bill HB 957 was amended last month so that it would end local protections of wetlands in 20 counties.

It also would eliminate the EPC's $2.2-million wetlands division, which for the past 22 years has imposed rules not enforced by the state, such as protecting wetlands of a half-acre or less.

The EPC staff argued local rules were essential in improving the water quality of Hillsborough County, which has more than 70 streams, tributaries or stretches of rivers that don't meet water standards.

"We think we're doing a good job," said the EPC's executive director, Richard Garrity. "We have more stringent regulations. I'd call them better regulations."

Commissioners Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe wanted to write a letter opposing the bill, but were rebuffed.

"We are the EPC," Ferlita said. "It's absolutely our responsibility to take a position."

News of the commission's decision rocked former Commissioner Jan Platt, who was on the board when it established its wetland protections.

"That is a copout," Platt said. "That is terrible news."

Denise Layne of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth, based in Lutz, said she was so angry she was shaking. She said developers had a stranglehold over a majority of the commissioners, and arguments for the legislation were based on false information that the state and local wetland programs are redundant.

"I can't believe our own commissioners won't defend themselves," said Layne, who was in Tallahassee lobbying against the bill.

In February, the EPC scuttled plans to impose even stricter rules to widen a protective zone around some wetlands by 20 feet after some developers protested.

"(The EPC) has been doing too good a job," said Marcella O'Steen of the Balm Civic Association. "I think this is a big rap on their knuckles."

It was unclear whether the EPC can share information with groups that are fighting the bill, such as the Florida Association of Counties, said Rick Tschantz, the agency's attorney.

"It's a good idea not to do that," he said. "It might be seen by commissioners as an end run around them."

In Tallahassee, the author of the amendment gutting the EPC, Rep. Will Kendrick, R-Carrabelle, said he was unaware of what commissioners did on Wednesday.

When asked about the agency, he responded: "EPC?"

Staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Craig Pittman contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 06:42:59]


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