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Wetlands division may escape cut
Hillsborough commissioners voted to get rid of it, but a plan is put forth to reduce its cost.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published July 17, 2007
TAMPA - A plan released Monday promises to save Hillsborough County's wetlands division from the chopping block by making it less costly and more efficient without sacrificing quality.
Richard Garrity, executive director of the county's Environmental Protection Commission, said the five-page plan should satisfy the county commissioners who voted more than three weeks ago to eliminate the $2.2-million division.
"I think the plan is great," Garrity said. "It does what commissioners wanted us to do to streamline the process and give better service to the customers."
Aside from the 29 jobs at the wetlands division, at stake is how wetlands are protected from development. Wetlands serve a variety of functions, such as easing flooding, improving water quality and providing habitat for diverse wildlife.
Without the EPC, development would follow state rules that aren't as strict as what the county now imposes. For instance, the state doesn't protect wetlands that are less than half an acre. The county does. Florida has lost at least 84,000 acres of wetlands in the past 15 years, according to a 2005 St. Petersburg Times series.
But a majority of commissioners sided with a local developer, Stephen Dibbs, who has long maintained that the county enforces rules that duplicate what the state already requires, making the EPC wasteful of taxpayer dollars and detrimental to development.
Garrity's plan cuts the wetlands division budget by $375,000, mostly by eliminating five positions. Two positions are vacant, including wetlands director. That post was held by Jadell Kerr, who resigned on July 6 after she criticized commissioners for voting to eliminate her division. Garrity said he didn't know which three other positions would be eliminated.
One major change alters the way the EPC evaluates wetlands, so that it ranks them according to their "ecological values." Currently, all wetlands are equal.
Ranking wetlands can be a slippery slope, said Denise Layne, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Growth in Lutz.
"If they're classified, then it's easier to destroy all wetlands that are less than the Class A rank," Layne said.
Garrity said his plan takes that into account by creating a process where the amount of wetlands will grow because developers have more flexibility.
That's part of another fundamental change in Garrity's plan. The EPC now tries first to get developers to avoid wetlands. Only after determining that there's no other choice does the EPC allow developers to replace wetlands in a process called "mitigation."
Under Garrity's new plan, developers will still be asked to avoid wetlands. But at the same time, they'll be allowed to show how they can replace wetlands, reducing project delays.
Garrity also proposes a new wetlands advisory committee of environmentalists and developers who would review rules and the agency's review process.
"They'll be able to give us good feedback," Garrity said.
But Roger Stewart, the EPC's previous executive director, said the agency already has that type of counsel.
"The whole idea is redundant," Stewart said. "The director ought to get that advice from his staff."
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who voted to keep the EPC's wetlands division, said he likes what he sees in Garrity's report.
"He's done what commissioners have asked him to do," Sharpe said. "If someone is bound and determined to rid the EPC from its wetlands role, however, then they won't be satisfied. You never know with this board. I'll wait and see."
Commissioner Brian Blair, who chairs the EPC and voted to disband it, said he hadn't reviewed the plan yet. Garrity will present it to commissioners at the EPC's July 26 meeting. Blair delayed a vote on it until August.
Garrity also will present the plan to the Tampa City Council at 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 315 E. Kennedy Blvd.
If the plan makes the wetlands division save money while improving quality, why did Garrity wait until now to unveil it?
"Things evolve," Garrity said. "A lot has happened to focus everyone's attention on this. Answers like this evolve through discussions with the people you regulate."
Staff writers Craig Pittman and Janet Zink contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.