Wetlands division saved by hybrid approach

08/16/07 Seán Kinane
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Following a daylong public hearing, the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission voted this afternoon to accept a compromise or what was called a hybrid solution to preserve the county's Wetlands Division.

The Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners comprise the seven-member EPC board.

In June, Commissioner Kevin White suggested eliminating the Wetlands Division, ostensibly due to the mandatory budget cuts the county is facing.

Both sides of the issue turned out. Fifteen people clad in red T-shirts held signs supporting the elimination of the Wetlands Division in front of the County Building. Many environmentalists wore green T-shirts saying "Wetlands: Save ‘em don’t pave ‘em."

Shortly after the doors opened at 8:20 a.m., all of the 182 seats of the Commission chambers were full. Two dozen people stood around the sides of the room and an additional 120 people were seated in an overflow room, according to the EPC community relations coordinator.

Dr. Rick Garrity, executive director of the EPC, explained the hybrid approach. He said it would save $368,000, mainly through the elimination of five full-time employees.

The move creates a one-stop permitting process for the county involving federal, state and local permitting agencies. It also eliminates some EPC rules, including those regarding mangrove trimming and preservation.

It also clarified permitting for what Garrity called "minor activities" in wetlands and established new exemptions from permitting for such changes as ditches and docks.

“I have complete confidence in the hybrid model that we have presented that it is going to maintain the integrity and intent of what the 111 rule stands for …”

Former Commissioner Jan Platt offered another alternative: create a balanced blue ribbon commission to examine what impact the proposed changes in the hybrid plan would have on the economy and on the environment.

“I’d just say, please proceed with caution,” Platt said.

In June, Commissioner Jim Norman voted for elimination of the Wetlands Division, but today he said he supports the hybrid plan.

“I asked SWFTMUD, I asked all these scientists what they think of this plan. And they told me that it’s got value …”

Commissioner Rose Ferlita was one of the three to vote against eliminating the Wetlands Division in June.

Joining Ferlita in her June vote was Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who talked about the importance of wetlands.

Some members of the public accused Commissioner White of spinning or even lying when he said he only suggested eliminating the Wetlands Division in order to improve it.

Marcella Osteen spoke in favor of keeping the Wetlands Division and sharply criticized White.

Fifty-five members of the public, many of them wearing green, spoke in favor of keeping the Wetlands Division and strong protections for wetlands. But they were split on whether to support the hybrid proposal. While it would preserve the Wetlands Division, the hybrid proposal would eliminate some protections for wetlands.

Janet Kovak is a Realtor. She blamed Commissioner Brian Blair for the logistical problems of today’s meeting, including having four different lists people could sign up to speak and people who had signed up before 8 a.m. but were called much later.

Keith Brickelmeyer wore red and agreed with seven of those who spoke in favor of eliminating the Wetlands Division.

The Commission voted unanimously to accept the hybrid approach, which will preserve the Wetlands Division.

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