Community Asset Worth Keeping
April 5, 2009
On March 21 The Tampa Tribune published a guest column by local land-use attorney Keith Bricklemyer ("Wetlands Division A Redundancy") questioning the value of the local Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County (EPC) wetland program. There were numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements.
The EPC wetlands program is a valuable asset for the residents of Hillsborough County. Better protection of the county's aquatic resources offers improved floodwater storage, storm buffering, recharge to groundwater, pollutant filtering and habitat for fish and wildlife.
Although the state and federal governments have wetland programs, the local EPC has a stricter standard for approving wetland impacts in Hillsborough. The state and federal programs are restricted in their review process regarding land-use considerations. This prevents the state and federal agencies from requiring applicants to redesign their projects to avoid wetlands as the EPC would require.
The EPC program, however, only approves wetland impacts where the impacts are necessary for the reasonable use of the property. This rule results in a significant reduction of wetland impacts in Hillsborough. For example, a local phosphate mining company acknowledged that the state had approved over 270 acres of wetland impacts that were subsequently denied by the EPC and Manatee County local programs.
Clearly, Mr. Bricklemyer's statement that there are no measurable differences between the state and local programs is inaccurate. The statement that the EPC cannot document successful enforcement of more stringent permitting is simply untrue. Although applicants generally design projects in Hillsborough County to EPC's stricter standard, there are documented instances where the EPC has required applicants to eliminate or reduce wetland impacts that were previously approved by the state.
Under state rules, proposed impacts to wetlands of one-half acre or smaller rarely must be mitigated or avoided at all. These wetlands are generally invisible for purposes of state environmental regulations. Only the extraordinary one-half acre or less size wetlands are regulated by the state in other counties. In Hillsborough County, these small yet important wetlands are reviewed under the full EPC rules. The author's statement that "any wetlands with any significant function or value are protected" (emphasis on original) is false and misleading.
The guest editorial goes on to compare the state rules with local rules and suggests the state rules are somehow superior. The author surely knows that the state rules allow for most requested wetland impacts to be permitted, and furthermore, that the mitigation of these impacts can be done outside the boundary of Hillsborough.
The residents of Hillsborough sought stricter standards for wetland impacts resulting in the adoption of the existing EPC local rules. There is no duplication where a stricter rule exists.
Mr. Bricklemyer suggests that the recent EPC action of exempting cow ponds and upland cut ditches somehow is an admission of the arbitrary nature of the local rule. The author may not be aware that the EPC did not regulate these areas until the state Legislature changed the wetland definition in 1994, and subsequently these areas suddenly came under the state definition of a wetland. However, from 1996 to the present the EPC recognized that these state-defined wetlands are not significant enough to warrant the same level of protection and were exempted through an executive order until 2007, when the exemptions were incorporated into the rule.
The EPC Wetlands Division is actively in the process of establishing a true one-stop permitting program. It is anticipated that an EPC wetland impact review for some activities will satisfy separate reviews conducted by the Tampa Port Authority, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal government. This further demonstrates the value of the EPC local wetland program.
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