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Developers in Florida are out of control
Friday, 06 April 2007

Critics: Wetlands proposal harmful
Bill would strip local officials of oversight unless they foot funds.
 Environmentalists and local government officials say a bill moving through the state Legislature could severely restrict efforts to preserve a key feature of their natural resources — wetlands. "Developers in Florida are out of control," she said. "They are lashing out at the one thing that is trying to protect the rest of us — local governments."

Critics: Wetlands proposal harmful

Bill would strip local officials of oversight unless they foot funds

Special to the Herald

Environmentalists and local government officials say a bill moving through the state Legislature could severely restrict efforts to preserve a key feature of their natural resources — wetlands.

A bill to streamline the wetlands permitting process, House Bill 957, was recently amended to prohibit most local governments from having a wetlands regulatory program and force them to rely on state rules, which are often less stringent.

The only alternative would be if the local governments assumed all Department of Environmental Protection responsibilities in the wetlands permitting process. That would give them the ability to enforce stricter rules, but would also involve considerable expense now being borne by the state.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, has one more committee stop before it reaches the House floor.

Proponents of the bill say it would eliminate unnecessary duplication while leaving a pathway for local governments to regulate wetlands. Environmentalists and local governments say getting rid of local rules will result in more wetlands being lost to development.

Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, says the bill is a tool of development interests and their legislative allies.

"Developers in Florida are out of control," she said. "They are lashing out at the one thing that is trying to protect the rest of us — local governments."

But Rep. Will Kendrick, R-Carrabelle, who sponsored the amendment, says he’s only trying to prevent local governments from duplicating and abusing the process.

"What many of the cities and counties are doing is using these permitting programs as a revenue stream, and that’s wrong," he said.

Kendrick said he proposed the amendment due to complaints from constituents and at the suggestion of Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, chairman of the House Environment & Natural Resources Council. Mayfield could not be reached for comment.

The bill has local county officials concerned.

"It sounds very serious for what we’re trying to do here to protect wetlands," said Karen Collins-Fleming, director of Manatee County’s Environmental Management Department.

One thing it would affect would be how the county enforces its mining ordinance with respect to wetlands, she said.

The Florida Association of Counties also opposes the bill.

"Local governments fill in the gaps left by state and federal permitting and are more protective of the community’s wetland resources," said spokesman Cragin Mosteller.

Question of money

Kendrick said local governments can still have their own wetlands rules through a delegated program, "if they can prove scientifically that their rules are stronger."

Frank Matthews, lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association, said the amendment doesn't take away local governments' ability to protect wetlands; it just forces them to coordinate their efforts with the state.

"The bureaucracy saved is the public at large doesn't have dual or duplicative processes," he said.

But according to DEP officials, very few local governments in the state have opted to adopt the expense of taking on the DEP's role in overseeing the permitting process. Only three — Broward, the city of Tallahassee, and Miami-Dade — have taken on the DEP program, and none of them are total.

Williams’ bill provides no funding for local governments to take on the state’s wetlands program. And that, one bill opponent said, is the heart of the problem.

"They know local governments do not have the resources," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "So they can say, 'No, no, it doesn't preempt local programs.' But they know it will."

Williams, however, defended the measure.

"I thought that this amendment was basically very, very harmless," she said.

The bill, she says, would only eliminate duplicative programs — it wouldn't get rid of local programs that are more stringent than state ones. She says it will be up to the DEP to decide if a local program is duplicative of state efforts.

"If you have one that is more stringent, knock yourself out," she said.

On groups that are up in arms against the bill: "Maybe they don't understand the bill."

"It's not a preemption," she said. "It's anything but."

Young disagrees.

"The only wetlands protection we are seeing in Florida for the past 14 years is on the county level," she said. "That's why Representative Kendrick and the developers are attacking current policy, which allows for some degree of local control."

'Broader implications'?

Many counties have at least some wetlands rules that are stronger than the state’s. For example, Manatee, Hillsborough, and Martin have strict rules requiring developers to avoid or minimize their impact on wetlands.

Many counties require a larger building setback from all, or at least some, types of wetlands, than the state. Alachua County has adopted wetland buffers ranging from 35 to 150 feet into its land-use regulations.

There is no doubt developers have to deal with a lot of different agencies —, local, state, and federal —, to get permission to build. Pat Neal, president of Neal Communities, one of the largest developers in the region, says he’s neutral on the bill, but said it doesn’t solve the real problem — the length of time it takes to get a wetlands permit for a housing development, which can take a year.

And time is money, he said.

"The time costs you another million and a half dollars, adding $4,000 to $6,000 to each home," he said.

Neal said that giving the Corps of Engineers program to the state won’t help much because, while the state has a time limit for permitting, DEP staff often ask developers for a waiver.

"And if you refuse," he said, "your permit can be denied."

What would he would prefer, Neal said, is to have to work with just one permitting agency, and for that agency to be the local government. "They have the best staff, local knowledge and judgment," he said.

Some critics of the bill also point out that other state statutes, such as the Growth Management Act, actually require local governments to take a strong role in managing their natural resources.

Charles Pattison, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida, said the change would make it impossible to adopt tougher wetlands protection programs."

And such programs are needed, he said.

"The state takes the broadest possible perspective, which frequently just does not recognize local conditions," he said. optional trim for west

Sarah Williams, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency is concerned that the bill creates potential problems for the environment and for some of DEP’s cooperative programs, such as programs to clean up polluted bodies of water.

"It could have broader implications than they originally thought," she said.

DEP is working to educate House members, and hopefully they will revise or remove the amendment, she said.

If residents are concerned, they should contact their legislators, said Glenn Compton, director of the Manasota-88 group, which opposes the bill. optional trim for west

The bill is now before the House Policy and Budget Council.

Reps. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, are members of this council. Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is sponsor of Senate Bill 2082, the companion to Williams’ bill, which does not yet carry the local government amendment. All three lawmakers said they plan to give the bill careful review.

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, has voted against it once in committee, and says he will oppose it again if it reaches the House floor.

"I think taking away local government’s ability to do environmental protection is not what the voters want," he said. "Most people know we have to work hard to protect our resources, and this seems a turn in the wrong direction without any clear justification."

— Herald Staff Writer Lyndsey Lewis contributed to this report.

At a glance

What: An amendment to House Bill 957, governing wetlands permitting, that would prevent local governments from imposing stricter controls on developments affecting wetlands than the state allows, unless the local governments adopt the program and expenses associated with state wetland regulation.

Pros: Supporters, including the Florida Home Builders Association, say it will eliminate unnecessary duplication in securing permits for development.

Cons: Opponents, including environmental groups, say it could eliminate needed protection for the state's wetlands.

What's next: The bill is now before the House Policy and Budget Council.

On the Web

Find more information on the state legislature, visit www.leg.state.fl.us.

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