The Big Swerve

The final battle in this year's WWF (Wild Wetlands Fight)

click to enlarge JUST A PAWN IN THE GAME: A marsh and palm hammock in Hillsborough County. The fight over wetlands such as these saw activists finally drawing a line in the sand. - Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission/gerold Morrision
Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission/gerold Morrision
JUST A PAWN IN THE GAME: A marsh and palm hammock in Hillsborough County. The fight over wetlands such as these saw activists finally drawing a line in the sand.

To use a wrestling term, one that Environmental Protection Commission Chairman B. Brian Blair is probably pretty familiar with, last week's meeting on the future of Hillsborough's wetlands was a "Work."

The wiki-definition of a Work is "a staged event, from the carnival tradition of "working" the crowd." Last Thursday morning, the "Work" involved another fine tradition from the world of pro wrestling: the "Swerve," or a quickly changing plotline.

And so it was that the Hillsborough County Commission, which comprises the board of directors of the EPC, tried to shift what was supposed to be a showdown between about 200 environmentalists and 100 friends of development and agriculture into a wild storyline of vandalism, civic emotions run amok, government sloth and — in the end — "just the right compromise."

The spin was that the so-called "Hybrid Plan" adopted by a 7-0 vote last week was both "developer-friendly" and "environment-friendly." The reality, however, is that the Hybrid was merely the better of two flawed choices: The other option on the table that day would have abolished local wetlands regulators and rules entirely.

The four commissioners who had led the fight to kill the EPC's wetlands division (urged on by lobbyists and developers with campaign contributions) suddenly insisted that their hard-line stance had been merely a ploy — a tactic to get intransigent bureaucrats, insistent environmentalists and aggrieved developers to a compromise solution. That spin didn't convince many wetlands advocates, even if it got some media buy-in. The Tampa Tribune headlined its front-page article, "Wetlands Compromise" and explained, "The vote was a major victory for environmental groups and neighborhood activists."

A major victory? Not exactly.

"This is not a win, in the usual sense where you gain something," said Sierra Club member Mariella Smith the day after the vote. "We fended off a rapacious attack."

"The people spoke. Was that a victory? Yes," said Denise Layne, a Lutz activist and head of Citizens for Responsible Growth. "Did we make any progress to have better, stricter laws? No."

Environmentalists, activists and some politicians, including Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern and former County Commissioner Jan Platt, had asked the commission to hold off on any changes to the EPC and instead convene a one-year study by the proverbial blue-ribbon panel. That idea didn't even draw a motion for approval.

The movement to crush local wetlands rules started just after the legislation session in Tallahassee ended in May. Commissioners Jim Norman, Kevin White, Ken Hagan and Blair voted preliminarily to cut Hillsborough's strict wetlands protections under the guise of ending duplication of effort and cutting the budget. That vote — coupled with the ham-handed nature in which Blair ran a handful of public meetings and shut down public comment — galvanized hundreds of citizens to try to save the wetlands division and its environmental protections.

Blair's quick move to accept the Hybrid Plan surprised at least two of his colleagues who were prepared to kill the EPC wetlands division on that morning. A week of steady pounding in the press — as well as concern for Blair's political liability; he does face re-election in 2008, after all — apparently led to the Swerve.

Even before the public had a chance to comment, Commissioner Jim Norman started in with an impassioned defense of his pro-development colleagues and a rebuke of the newspaper writers.

"I lived through the Roger Stewart years," Norman said, referring to the legendary, cantankerous environmentalist who ran the EPC until 2000. "I believe politics has gotten into EPC more than the substance coming out of it." He criticized editorials that called the four anti-EPC commissioners "in the pockets of the developers," pointing out that the countywide planning commission approves more than 90 percent of development projects that come in front of it, while the County Commission approves fewer, at 80 percent.

"Bad projects don't get into the system," he said, drawing chuckles of disbelief from the audience. "Every project is being scrubbed before the County Commission sees it. We're elected, and we have to abide by laws. That's why there's a courthouse across the street that looks at land-use laws."

"In the pockets of developers?" Norman asked with great indignation. "That's hilarious to me."

Norman insisted that change at the EPC wetlands division was long overdue and, in fact, requested on at least 41 occasions by county commissioners over the past decade. "We could have done this a long time ago" and avoided polarizing the community. (Raising the question, "Then why didn't they?")

Norman then turned to Blair and said, "The hits this man to the right has taken —" and revealed that Blair's house had been vandalized and his family harassed over his stance on the issue. "It's absolutely awful to me that we tore this community apart. It really does distress me."

It was then Blair's turn. "Yes, I have taken a lot of bullets," he said of his stewardship of the wetlands issue before passing the chairman's gavel to Commissioner Al Higginbotham so Blair himself could make the motion to accept the Hybrid Plan.

The fact that they were being "worked" was not lost on the audience. As one resident, Marcella O'Steen, said during public comments: "The spinning I've heard from this board is amazing."

In the audience were at least three people either registered or rumored to be running against Blair — four if you count the idea that Jan Platt would come out of retirement to slay the dragon. Democratic candidate Kevin Beckner spoke, as did Lisa Rodriguez, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for County Commission in 2006.

The strongest political pitch, however, came from Janet Kovach, a Republican who has been looking for just the right race for some time now. She suggested that Blair resign, that he didn't have the tools necessary to be a good county commissioner. She also brandished a book on ethics.

Throughout the day, old faces reappeared from decades on the frontlines of the growth-vs.-environment wars: former Tampa Audubon president Ged Caddick; activist Jan Smith and even Lynn McGarvey, a Tampa Bay Sierra Clubber legendary in local environmental circles who flew in from California for the occasion.

In looking at the overflow crowd, you had to wonder: Why such a heated response to a fairly arcane issue whose importance is in inverse proportion to its sexiness? Does this signal a shift in county politics to the left?

The answer to the first question is that killing wetlands is where many in the progressive community finally drew the line with the conservative-dominated commission.

The answer to the second will be known by the end of next year. Blair has to stand for re-election, and the 2008 ballot could also contain the Florida Hometown Democracy referendum, which would strip the power to increase land-use densities from the County Commission and give it to people directly. It would seriously screw with the pace of development.

Getting rid of Blair wouldn't by itself transform Hillsborough County. Approving the Hometown Democracy referendum would.

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