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Wetlands deal may produce ripples
Despite agreeing not to kill the EPC division, some officials may be hit politically.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published August 18, 2007
TAMPA - It may take months to understand how the environment will fare after Hillsborough County commissioners approved a compromise Thursday that preserved an embattled wetlands program.
But the political aftermath is already unfolding.
"I think some voters won't forget about this," said David Campo, a developer. "It's unfortunate, but I think some of the commissioners were losers and damaged long term."
During the meeting, a majority of 300 residents aimed their scorn at four of seven commissioners who voted in June to disband the $2-million wetlands division of the Environmental Protection Commission.
"You all have angry constituents," Glenda Piasecki warned them.
Brian Blair, Ken Hagan, Jim Norman and Kevin White subsequently backed off from eliminating the program in favor of a deal that shrinks the division by five jobs while speeding up the review of building projects. In approving the deal, they joined commissioners Rose Ferlita, Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe who dissented from the June vote.
The compromise is hailed by Richard Garrity, executive director of the EPC, as a better approach to approving development, saving $367,000 in salaries. It exempts ditches and cattle ponds from protection.
But the compromise may provide little political cover. Developers and community activists alike have reservations about it.
"I still think the compromise will weaken the protection of our wetlands," said Terry Flott, president of the United Citizens Action Network, a consortium of neighborhood groups. "It's not a victory, but it has raised awareness in the community about these four commissioners."
Campo said he has too many unanswered questions about the new plan.
"The jury is still out," he said.
What impressed most about the meeting, however, was the resolve the crowd showed in pressuring commissioners.
"It was really like being back in the 1960s at a rally," said Janet Kovach, a Realtor who lives in Riverview. "People have had enough, and this brought that home to commissioners."
Norman said he never intended to eliminate the wetlands division. He met with Garrity a month before the vote and told him to draft a compromise. He amended White's motion to eliminate the wetlands agency by tacking on an amendment that allowed commissioners to consider Garrity's plan.
"There needed to be a change in the EPC, and I thought this was the best way to do it," he said.
That parliamentary move, former commissioner Jan Platt said, may save Norman from getting lumped in with the other three commissioners come election time.
"That might be his saving grace," said Platt, who was known to be environmentally friendly during her 24 years on the board. As for the others, they may not be so lucky, she said.
"I think there will be political consequences," she said.
Kovach, a Republican who last ran for the commission in 1984, said she's now thinking hard about challenging a sitting commissioner. She lives in Higginbotham's district but could run for Blair's at-large seat next year.
Blair already has one challenger, Democrat political newcomer Kevin Beckner, a financial planner who raised $36,000 from 200 donors in the second quarter of 2007. Jadell Kerr, the ousted manager of the wetlands division, said she might take on Blair as well.
"This wetlands battle is only the latest sign that there's blood in the water when it comes to Blair," said Mike Suarez, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. "This makes him even more vulnerable than he was."
Blair said he wasn't worried about lingering damage to his political fortunes.