Thu, Feb

New Law Fails to Protect Wetlands

What's good for Northwest Florida's developers isn't good for its environment -- so contend the critics of a bill signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush this week.

What's good for Northwest Florida's developers isn't good for its environment -- so contend the critics of a bill signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush this week.

With a stroke of the pen, Bush cleared the way for local developers to continue filling in some wetlands without obtaining permits or mitigating losses.

The law continues to exempt the Panhandle from the state's Environmental Resource Permit program, which was designed to protect wetlands from construction and prevent stormwater flooding.

The permitting exemption was strongly pushed by Panhandle lawmakers, including state Sen. Charlie Clary and state Rep. Ray Sansom. Both are Destin Republicans.

"We want to make sure that the wetlands are protected," Sansom said. "We want to make sure the environment is protected just like any other place in Florida." The problems with implementing the Environmental Resource Permit program include cost. Sansom said it would run $50 million.


"The Panhandle delegation, we're pretty hard-headed about raising taxes," the state representative continued.

The delegation also worries about creating a bureaucracy that might prevent regular folks, not just developers, from building homes.

Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida policy director, disputed both the Panhandle delegation's estimate of the cost of the Environmental Resource Permit program and the belief it would make it more difficult for people to build homes.

"It certainly hasn't kept anyone in Tampa or Orlando from building houses and there's no reason it would prevent anyone in the Panhandle from building houses," he said.

Draper also disputed the legislators' contention that the program would cost $50 million. He said the governor and Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested only $1.9 million annually to implement the Environmental Resource Permit program in Northwest Florida.

"We're disappointed with the governor's decision to sign the bill," the Audubon spokesman continued. "We think it will result in more flooding, more pollution and more habitat loss." The Panhandle exemption was embedded in a bill that also seeks to protect the Florida phosphate industry's financial solvency, as well as consolidate the federal and state wetlands permitting process.

Though Bush signed the bill, he expressed reservations about the Panhandle exemption.

"I am most troubled by the section of the bill exempting the Panhandle from environmental resource permitting for the next five years," Bush stated in a letter to Secretary of State Glenda Hood.

The governor hoped other ways would be found to protect what he described as the region's many "natural treasures."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News