EPC in danger of being “streamlined” again?

03/09/09 Seán Kinane
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Two years ago, Hillsborough County citizens successfully stopped an effort by developers and some Commissioners to eliminate the wetlands division of the county’s Environmental Protection Commission, or EPC. But a new state-wide effort to eliminate all of Florida’s local regulatory agencies in an effort to “streamline” permitting for developers is supported by two state representatives from Hillsborough.

Republicans Faye Culp, who represents south Tampa and parts of western Hillsborough, and Rich Glorioso, whose district includes parts of eastern Hillsborough and southeastern Pasco County, are both are on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee. They support efforts to eliminate some roles of local agencies they say duplicate regulatory efforts of state and regional entities. Rep. Glorioso says cutting out that layer of local regulation could help developers get permits more quickly.

“I expect a bill this session that will be doing a lot of that in a lot of different areas. You’ve got to understand bureaucracy. Every bureaucrat’s main job is to protect his job. Many, many never look at how you streamline the process. They never look at it from the customer’s point of view. … Remember time is money for that person who goes in there and asks for that permit. That’s putting people to work. Every day longer they take is one more day that somebody’s not working.”

But Mariella Smith, an environmental activist in Hillsborough County, says that people don’t want to lose even more local control over development.

“It just shows that these representatives are mind-bogglingly out of touch with their constituents. I just can’t imagine a politician like Faye Culp, who’s been in the business for a long time, being so far out of touch with what her constituents want, that she could say she wishes she could wave a magic wand and get rid of EPC when this county’s citizens have proved over the last couple of years that they will not stand for any weakening of our local Environmental Protection Commission.”

The executive director of Hillsborough’s EPC, Rick Garrity, says that the bill is likely to streamline regulations, including those for wetlands.

“We’re just afraid a bill that comes out like that could be harmful to local government – to county environmental programs.”

Garrity says the EPC responds to over 2,000 citizen complaints every year and 97 or 98 percent of them are answered within a week. He says this is one reason why local control over regulation is important.

That’s where you get service to the citizens is at the local level. We’re familiar with the environmental issues in the community and we have staff to address those issues. And it’s important to be able to have local county programs tailored to what the needs of that community and the natural resources in that area are. We have stricter wetlands regulations here in Hillsborough County than the state does. That’s what our Board has approved and that is how we’ve been able to protect the natural resources of this area.”

Unlike state or regional regulatory agencies, Garrity says counties like Hillsborough are able to protect wetlands less than half an acre in area.

“That is one of the important things in this area. We have over half of the state’s nesting population of roseate spoonbills. Also 50% of the state’s nesting population of white ibis are in this area. And those birds all use freshwater wetlands to forage in. Habitat protection, aquifer recharge, floodwater protections are all important functions of wetlands, both small wetlands and large wetlands.”

The streamlining proposal is supported by the Association of Florida Community Developers, whose lobbyist did not return WMNF’s call by airtime. Despite the advantages to having local control over regulations, Representative Glorioso prefers statewide rules.

“Give one solid standard. Do we have to increase that state standards to make them more restrictive? I don’t know that may be the issue.”

Strict environmental standards help to protect wetlands, which save taxpayers money, according to environmental activist Mariella Smith.

“It’s very expensive for taxpayers to clean up pollution rather than allow wetlands to naturally protect our water bodies for free. So we expect our lawmakers to protect our wetlands in order to protect our pocketbooks besides protecting the wildlife that depends on these resources.”

Smith says she’s surprised politicians have not learned a lesson because “citizens have clearly said, ‘We’re not going to stand for this.’”

“We picketed, we demonstrated, we filled County Center with hundreds of people, we sent hundreds and thousands of letters to our representatives in 2007 when they tried this -- led by the same people who are doing it again, incidentally. And we managed to throw Brian Blair out of office largely because of his handling of this issue and his leading the county to try to weaken Environmental Protection Commission and our wetland protections. And here these politicians are trying to do it from the state level.”

Blair lost his re-election bid last November to current Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, one of the people who stood up against Blair and others who wanted to eliminate the EPC’s wetlands division.

“I absolutely oppose such measures,” said Beckner.

WMNF asked Representative Glorioso if he was concerned that, like former Commissioner Brian Blair, his opposition to local environmental regulations could bring repercussions during the next election.

“Actually not. Everybody that’s talked to me since then says, ‘You’re right, you can’t have multiple agencies looking at the same thing.’ Now, we’re not talking about reducing the restrictions. You know, I haven’t talked about anything about what the restrictions are, I’m talking about the agencies that review the process.”

Rep. Faye Culp did not return our call by airtime.

Rep. Rich Glorioso

Rep. Faye Culp

Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County - EPC

House Agriculture & Natural Resources Policy Committee

WMNF coverage of efforts to eliminate the EPC wetlands division

Association of Florida Community Developers

article in Tampa Tribune

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