Wetlands Division A Redundancy
The emotional rhetoric offered historically and in recent editorials to continue the Environmental Protection Commission's wetlands permitting program is missing one important thing: facts that document that Hillsborough County is more successful in protecting wetlands with EPC than other counties that don't have such a group.
No such evidence has been offered because it does not exist. Of the 16 counties governed by Southwest Florida Water Management District, Hillsborough is the only one with a separate, county-funded wetlands permitting program. Do no other counties care about wetlands protection? Or have they done their homework and concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the water district adequately protect wetlands and no additional expenditures are necessary? My bet, 15 to 1, is the latter.
The claim that the EPC wetlands division is the only guardian of wetlands of a half-acre or smaller is false. These small wetlands are required to undergo full-scale permitting review by the water district when the wetlands are used by threatened or endangered species; are located in an area of critical state concern; are connected to one or more other wetlands and the total acreage of the connected wetlands exceeds one-half acre; or are cumulatively of more than minimal value to fish and wildlife.
Further, the water district has an application form and standards, definitions and requirements in its rules that are thorough to a fault. Compare them to EPC's simplistic wetland rule to expose the folly of continuing this multimillion-dollar expenditure of taxpayers' money. Last year, under pressure to defend its practices, EPC proposed, after more than two decades, to create its own basis of review. More duplication!
After more than two decades of requiring permits for impacts to cow ponds and upland ditches, EPC now will exempt those same cow ponds and upland ditches from permitting. Are these "wetlands" suddenly no longer important? This and other recent changes to the EPC permitting program constitute a clear admission of the arbitrary and unreasonable manner in which the wetlands permitting division has operated until threatened with elimination last year.
There is one statement from The Tampa Tribune's July 24, 2008, editorial on this subject that I wholeheartedly agree with: "But environmentalists should not mistake bureaucratic process with resource protections."
The important economics of this program include not just the $1.8 million budget for the wetlands division. The costs to the regulated community over the years, which costs get passed on to the public at large, have been tens of millions of dollars - again, with no documented benefits beyond those achieved by other wetlands permitting agencies. In response to a public records request, EPC responded that it could document no successful enforcement of more stringent permitting requirements over the last five years beyond what is required by these other agencies.
EPC's wetlands division may have been valuable in its early years before the requirements of the Army Corps, DEP and the water district were established. However, its value has been overcome by events. These agencies and their programs make EPC's wetlands division an anachronism. Since the Hillsborough County Commission could not muster the fortitude to eliminate the EPC wetlands division, the state Legislature should.
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