'A Flash Of Green' In Hillsborough

Published: Apr 24, 2007

Last century, I came to Florida as the daughter of a rocket scientist who moved to Satellite Beach and worked at Cape Kennedy. Last week, I felt I was rocketing back in time when reading news of the Hillsborough County Commission.

First, at a workshop and without hearing from the public, commissioners gutted "livable communities" rules. Then, on April 11, the politicians forbade county environmental-protection staff to take a stand against the Florida Legislature's threatened subversion of its power to protect wetlands. (Commissioners Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe dissented.)

It was "A Flash of Green" all over again. In John D. MacDonald's seminal novel set at mid-century on the west coast of Florida, development-oriented Commissioner Elmo Bliss tells reporter Jimmy Wing that all the magic places and wild things are already gone. So it matters little when politicians side with developers, backing ecologically disastrous plans.

But all the magic places and wild things are not yet gone. That's why citizens packed commission chambers last Thursday night. Those who care about the environment no longer believe that commissioners can be trusted unless closely watched. The overflow of citizens lined up against the walls.

Board Chairman Jim Norman first allowed three minutes of public comment per person, then truncated the time allotted to two minutes so commissioners could call it a night. Here are some of the comments:

"Nature makes wetlands. People make money. The removal of wetlands should not be 'just the cost of doing business.' "

"Why do we make it so difficult to have quality growth?"

"Wetlands create a lower risk of flooding, and that's good for everyone."

"Let citizens give input guiding the growth of Hillsborough County."

"This is our comprehensive plan, our blueprint for growth."

"We aren't enforcing our comp plan and the very simplest of codes."

Joe Redner juxtaposed Commissioner Brian Blair's statement - "We have no evidence that our wetlands are declining" - with published aerial photos that show significant wetlands loss. Before the meeting ended, Blair repeated his claim that Hillsborough County has experienced a net gain of wetlands - "People can shake their heads, but this is our own EPC" doing the count, he said. He then argued that overly rigorous protections are akin to giving a sick person too much of an antibiotic. So why enlarge the buffer zones?

Tampa's development community, of course, was out in full force. Land-use attorney Ron Weaver raised the specter of "hometown democracy," a potential ballot initiative that would rob Peter (development-driven county commissions) to pay Paul (the people). Weaver's insinuations infuriated Denise Layne, executive director of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth, Inc., who said, "Developers are saying, 'Hometown democracy is coming.' Do not buy this crap. It's crying wolf. The very people" - developers who inspired the ballot initiative by exercising undue influence on government decisions - "now don't want the consequences of their actions."

The commission takes up these issues again on April 26. Before that date, Hillsborough County residents must make their values clear. Please reinforce this message: When politicians roll back environmental protections, they tread on sacred ground.

Andrea Brunais is a freelance writer living in Tampa and a member of the Sierra Club.