Pimp My Lake

A pro-development bloc tries undermining wetlands protection.

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Does anyone still doubt that some Republicans in Florida would use the guise of property tax reform to accomplish the larger goal of dismantling the parts of government they don't like? Then take a look at what's going on in Tampa with wetlands protection.

Two weeks ago, in what one county regulator called "a circus" of a meeting, Hillsborough commissioners voted 4-3 to eliminate the wetlands division of the Environmental Protection Commission. The vote would rewrite development rules to match those of regional and state regulators, who many feel take a less strident approach to wetlands protection. (The County Commission acts as the board of directors for Hillsborough's EPC.)

Commissioners Brian Blair, Ken Hagan, Jim Norman and Kevin White (the only Democrat on the board) voted to cut the department. Al Higginbotham, Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita voted against the abolition.

The vote was a victory for developers who failed to kill the wetlands division earlier this year in the Legislature — most notably for developer Steve Dibbs, who has made a crusade of his displeasure with the EPC.

There is more than a fair amount of irony (or justice?) to the fact that these backward steps were being overseen by Commissioner Brian Blair at the same time the St. Petersburg Times was revealing he had used his influence to try and get the lake he lives on in northeast Hillsborough cleaned up ahead of other troubled water bodies in the county.

Pimp my lake, indeed.

Since the commission's vote, however, a firestorm has erupted.

On Saturday, more than 70 civic and environmental leaders signed a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist asking for an investigation into the commission vote.

"Hillsborough County has an abundance of lakes, creeks, the Hillsborough River, Tampa Bay, Hillsborough Bay and all its estuaries that need a higher standard of regulation for protection," the activists wrote. "We believe the actions of the board of directors of EPC constitute official misconduct (malfeasance); wrongful exercise of lawful authority (misfeasance); and, neglect of duty bestowed upon them by legislative act," they wrote.

On top of that, Tampa City Council members voted to oppose the abolition and are asking for their own seat on the EPC. The county's wetlands director, Jadell Kerr, was suspended after calling her elected bosses "arrogant" in a blog post on Sticks of Fire and intimating that the entire meeting and outcome was scripted.

For progressives, it was just more evidence of the GOP's determination to gut planning, environmental and growth management laws.

"They don't want government to be successful. They don't want any government to be successful," said Steve Sarnoff, a Pinellas labor leader. "They want to kill it."

Even some Republicans agree with that assessment.

"I think there's an element of truth" in that view, said Sharpe, who voted against abolishing the wetlands protections. "There's a way now of attacking programs that you find get in your way by saying we can't afford to have it."

Sharpe points out that cutting the wetlands division saves only about $800,000 at a time when the county had already made enough cuts to accommodate property tax reform. Using regional or state regulations for wetlands protection means allowing more "wetlands banking," in which developers are allowed to build on one wetlands area in trade for providing another elsewhere in the county. Sometimes, however, those new wetlands aren't as effective or valuable as the ones that were destroyed.

"We have to show the value of the program and how much it saves us by doing these things now and not later going back like they are in New Orleans and spending billions to fix the problems," Sharpe said.

A decision on Hillsborough's wetlands division has been pushed back to August, when it is likely that the environmental agency's director will be able to make a full proposal on streamlining the development approval process and taking over for regional permitting, two criticisms cited in killing the division.

Finally, Sharpe argues that the environment shouldn't be a partisan issue.

"It makes good sense to be good stewards of the environment whether you are Democrat or Republican," he said. "We need to be thinking about locally what makes sense. Protect the environment."

Can't wait for the next issue of CL for more info about Florida media and politics? Check my blog, thepoliticalwhore.com, for a daily dose or to leave a comment about this column.

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