Platt, Storms join forces to protect environment

The old rivals agreed to support the EPC to keep developers from destroying wetlands.

Published May 18, 2007

TAMPA - While they were Hillsborough County commissioners, Jan Platt and Ronda Storms were the yin and the yang of local politics.

If Democrat Platt zigged, Storms the Republican often zagged, and vice versa.

But in an improbable homecoming Thursday, the two old combatants lined up on the same side of a debate before their former colleagues. They joined supporters of the county's Environmental Protection Commission and vouched for its power to protect wetlands from development.

"Back off, " Platt said to commissioners, in a good-natured tone. "Be a statesman. Things are working fine the way they are."

For much of this year, the EPC has fended off a campaign from developer Stephen Dibbs to disband its $2.2-million wetlands management division, which since the 1980s has imposed tougher standards than the state. With state lawmakers meeting next month to consider drastic tax cuts, Commissioners Jim Norman and Brian Blair, who is chairman of the EPC, say all potential cuts in services must be considered.

Not so fast, Storms said politely. Strong local oversight of wetlands helps prevent costly problems later, such as flooding.

"If you fail to protect the wetlands, you will see an increase in stormwater projects, " said Storms, who is now a state senator. "You will see regular people's property flooded. And you're going to have to address it."

Commissioners, who sit as the EPC board, shouldn't let developers sway their decision, Storms said.

"By my count, this is just the latest of what developers don't want to pay for anymore, " Storms said. "They don't want to pay for transportation concurrency. They don't want to pay for school concurrency. They don't want to pay for stormwater concurrency. Now they want to be relieved from wetlands mitigation."

Norman said they were being practical by exploring ways to cut the budget. Norman said the county could face cuts between $100-million to $200-million.

"That's our struggle, " Norman told Platt. "I hope you understand. This is like a Hurricane Katrina coming through here."

Blair said that the EPC's regulations duplicate what the state already does. Cutting back on duplication won't harm the wetlands, he said, and it will help save the county money.

As in previous meetings, nearly everyone who spoke against the EPC on Thursday were either Dibbs or people with close ties to him. Dibbs, his daughter, son-in-law, greens keeper, planner, lawyer and others with ties to him spoke against county wetland regulation.

"It's not about destroying wetlands, it's about how best to protect them, " Dibbs said. "EPC's wetlands division is an overriding layer of bureaucratic waste of taxpayer's money."

Dibbs has a history with the EPC. He won a court case against the agency in the 1990s, but was later flagged in 2004 for removing a large swath of cypress trees and wetlands plants. Then the EPC denied his plan to build two dozen homes in Carrollwood because of wetlands concerns.

Dibbs has since complied in both cases, the EPC says.

But Dibbs harbors bitter feelings about the EPC, which he thinks doesn't give him credit for award-winning wetland mitigation projects.

He faxed a letter Wednesday to commissioners questioning the credentials of Jadell Kerr, who heads the EPC's wetlands division. Included was information from Kerr's personnel file. In April, a private detective, Rosalyn Rodriguez of Tropical Surveillance & Investigations, requested the personnel files for Kerr and the EPC's executive director, Richard Garrity. Rodriguez wouldn't say who hired her or what else she was doing on behalf of her client.

Rick Tschantz, the EPC's attorney, said no one other than the detective requested Kerr's personnel file. Dibbs couldn't be reached.

Kerr said she has only recently dealt with Dibbs and was surprised about the letter he sent to commissioners.

"I don't know why he's taking it to this level, " she said.

The EPC plans to discuss the wetlands issue further June 21.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.