Hillsborough EPC tables Agriculture exemptions
The Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County (EPC) voted this morning to delay its decision on implementing rules providing exemptions that would have let farmers destroy some wetlands on bona fide agricultural properties.
Ten environmentalists spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, raising questions about the rules. The EPC will consider those questions over the next two months and vote on the new rules in January.
Most of the exemptions apply to isolated wetlands that are smaller than one-quarter acre, though some exemptions apply to wetlands up to one-half acre, according to EPC Executive Director Richard Garrity.
Garrity said these rules would apply to only 70 acres out of the 67,000 acres of wetlands in the county’s agricultural lands.
Terry Flott, chairperson of United Citizens Action Network (UCAN), applauded the delay.
"Well, I’m relieved that they’re taking some extra time. I don’t know that it’s going to be sufficient, but it’s better than approving a rule that was obviously not ready to be approved. You don’t approve a rule and then after the fact add to it. They need to tread slowly and make sure they’re covering their bases, there are a lot of weaknesses in this rule."
The most contentious issue in the rule change dealt with how long after an exemption from mitigation a piece of property must remain in agriculture. The proposed change suggested seven years, Flott and the other environmentalists suggested 10 to 20 years or forever.
“Before two days ago there was a commitment to 10 years and then it all of a sudden went down to seven years. We heard, I think it was, yesterday again that it was now they thought three to five years was sufficient, so it seems like we’re working the wrong way. So, I think there has to be a minimum, minimum of ten years otherwise that’s not long-term, it’s not in long-term planning mode with the comp plan. So, we need to be consistent.”
The only member of the public who spoke in favor of adopting the rules asked that the number of years be reduced to two. Hugh Gramling, chairman of the Agricultural Economic Development Council, said his group endorsed the wetlands exemption rule for agriculture with caveats, including their desire that the timeline that exempted property must remain agricultural be reduced.
Gramling, who is also president of the Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers Association, is lobbying state representatives for legislation that would make it more difficult for the EPC to protect wetlands on agricultural lands.
Mariella Smith is a member of the Citizens’ Environmental Advisory Committee and responded to the suggestion of Gramling and the Agricultural Economic Development Council to reduce the number of years land must remain agricultural after getting a wetlands exemption.
“Well, I think Hugh Gramling was disingenuous in asking for two years. If you really seriously want an agricultural exemption, then you need to be serious about keeping the land in agriculture for a while. Otherwise it’s clear, you’re just asking for exemption to be able to fill wetlands and turn the land over to developers and give them filled wetlands that they could not have gotten as developers. … But certainly, Hugh Gramling asking for a two-year exemption is asking for an exemption for land that will very quickly be paved over.”
Smith said the timeframe for an exempted property to remain agricultural should be at least 10 years.
“Frankly, I personally believe that at any point that the land changes its use from agriculture to development that the developer should have to at that point mitigate the damage that was done to the wetlands and to put wetlands back. I don’t see any reason for saying that there should be a timeline that would eventually get a developer out of the mitigation that developers are required to do just because an exemption was granted to a farmer somewhere back along the line. … But I would be happier with a longer range, something between 10 and 20 years. Our comprehensive plan ties land use to a twenty year horizon.”
EPC Board member Mark Sharpe proposed the motion to delay action on the proposed rule change for two months. It passed 6-0.
“Ultimately the way the process or any process should work is there needs to be confidence in the public that what we’re doing is for the betterment of our entire community. While I think the EPC has done a very good job working with the agricultural community and the stakeholders in coming up with a better rule, there’s still a lot of questions. So it doesn’t seem make sense when we haven’t changed the rule in 22 years, to rush the process unnecessarily. An additional two months, to me, seems very legitimate.”
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