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Old August 13th, 2007, 06:08 AM   #21
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Here's some more drama...

Wetlands agency on the brink
Hillsborough's environmental guardians are a vote from extinction. What would that mean?
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007

TAMPA - A push came in 1989 and again in 1996. Each time it failed.

But this year, a drive to wipe out local wetlands regulation in Hillsborough County is, more than ever, closer to succeeding. Commissioners are scheduled to decide the fate of the $2.2-million wetlands division of the county's Environmental Protection Commission on Thursday by voting to keep it, shrink it, or trash it.

Who wants to eliminate the wetlands division, and who wants to save it?

Commissioners Brian Blair, Ken Hagan, Jim Norman and Kevin White voted two months ago to disband the wetlands division and cut 29 jobs. A second vote is needed to make it official. Commissioners say money can be saved if the division is eliminated. The state also protects wetlands, so it's redundant to have the county do it and slow down developers with unnecessary red tape, they say.

Three commissioners -- Rose Ferlita, Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe -- dissented, saying the county's tougher rules may do a better job protecting wetlands than the state. Of the three, only Higginbotham sounded reluctant to, in the end, vote to preserve the wetlands division.

What does the EPC do now to protect wetlands?

It requires that development either avoids wetlands or replaces them; delineates where wetlands are; makes recommendations to the county, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City on how to avoid wetlands in development proposals; investigates complaints about wetlands destruction, levying fines against violators that raised about $130,000 last year; oversees mangrove trimmings, which help protect water quality and habitat in Tampa Bay.

Why the fuss over wetlands?

Once considered worthless swampland, wetlands now get respect from not just environmentalists, but developers as well. They store huge amounts of rain and serve as sponges, which help ease flooding. They're home to a vast array of fish, wildlife and plants. They filter out particles in rainwater and stormwater runoff, helping clean the water as it seeps into streams that produce the water we use.

So if wetlands are so great, who wouldn't want to protect them?

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection put it this way in the agency's guide on wetlands: "The nature of wetland benefits are such that the owners of wetlands usually cannot capture the benefits." In other words, only those downstream enjoy its flood control benefits. Wildlife migrate to other far away areas. Its filtering capabilities can't be commercially exploited. "That is why, despite their value, wetlands are being eliminated."

Are they being eliminated?

Depends on whom you ask. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that more than 50 percent of natural wetlands in the continental U.S. have been destroyed. A 2005 special report by the St. Petersburg Times showed through satellite imagery that Florida lost 84,000 acres of wetlands since 1990, not including wetlands lost to farming and mining. But others say wetlands are fine. In 2006, the federal government touted a report saying there was a net gain in wetlands between 1998 and 2004.

It reached this figure by counting artificial wetlands created to replace the ones destroyed, including golf course ponds and ornamental lakes. Environmentalists say it's misleading to equate man-made wetlands with natural ones because it can take years to evaluate the success of a created wetland.

Are artificial wetlands as good as natural ones?

A 2001 scientific study by the National Academies of Science pointed out most efforts to make up for wetland losses end in failure. In Hillsborough, Blair has been the most outspoken commissioner in contending that there hasn't been a loss in wetlands. He regularly cites a report by the county's EPC that says there was a net gain of 627 acres in wetlands between 1985 and 2006. But, like the federal government's 2006 report, that includes artificial wetlands created to replace natural ones.

Who else wants to eliminate the division?

Stephen Dibbs. He's a commercial and residential developer who, until recently, almost single-handedly led a campaign against the wetlands division. Dibbs has been cited, and cleared, for wetland violations dating back to the 1990s. Dibbs, his associates and relatives called for eliminating the wetlands division, saying the state does a better job of protecting wetlands, and the county isn't needed.

So Dibbs is the only one who wants to eliminate the wetlands division?

Not anymore. The Tampa Bay Builders Association once said this wasn't their fight. Now they are regularly meeting with EPC officials to discuss the fate of the wetlands division. The Greater Tampa Association of Realtors also has recently endorsed the elimination of the division.

Who's vouching for the division?

A broad cross-section of neighborhood and environmental groups have rallied to its defense. Former Commissioners Jan Platt, Kathy Castor now in Congress and Ronda Storms (now a state senator). More than 50 residents signed a June 29 letter to Gov. Charlie Crist demanding an investigation of commissioners because of their vote to eliminate the wetlands division.

But if the state already protects wetlands, aren't they overreacting?

The county is tougher in regulating developers. The state doesn't protect wetlands less than half an acre. The county does, by requiring that developers either avoid them or replace them. The state doesn't review projects until the final construction plans are drawn. The county negotiates with developers at the start of a project, a difference that Jadell Kerr, the agency's former wetlands director, says saves more wetlands than anything else. One example of the two approaches is Mosaic Fertilizer and its bid this year for a mining permit. The county required the company preserve more than 200 acres of wetlands the state didn't require.

The EPC's executive director, Rick Garrity, has come up with a compromise to save the division. Is it a good plan?

Garrity says his plan helps save money and makes the process more efficient without sacrificing wetland protections. But it hasn't won many over. It shifts much of the burden to streamline the process to his staff, by putting in deadlines to review projects while cutting four positions. He's adding layers of new bureaucracy, such as an advisory committee and an ombudsmen.

Environmentalists say it's yet another concession to developers to weaken safeguards, but Garrity said he's astounded by complaints of his plan, adding that it improves the process by taking outside advice from those the agency regulates. But Michael Peterson, governmental affairs representative for the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, said Garrity's compromise doesn't do enough to ease the permitting process: "It still doesn't get rid of duplication."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]

Fast Facts:


Developers need permission from state and county agencies before they can build. But the review process to protect wetlands is more intensive at the county. Here are the different stages of development the county and state review.

Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission

1. Review of plans during zoning request, recommendations only for changes that would save wetlands.

2. Preliminary construction plans, staff approval of treatment of wetlands necessary.

3. Final construction plans, staff approval necessary.

4. Post-construction, fines possible if rules weren't obeyed.

Southwest Florida Water Management District

1. Review of final construction plans, approval of treatment of wetlands necessary. Unlike the EPC, this goes before the board for a vote. Board members are appointed by the governor.

2. Post-construction, fines possible.

[Last modified August 11, 2007, 22:38:42]

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Old August 17th, 2007, 05:59 PM   #22
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The BOCC backs away!

Amid uproar, tide turns in wetlands protection fight
Commissioners drop a controversial plan.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2007

TAMPA - Facing a throng of 300 residents who overwhelmingly supported Hillsborough County's environmental agency, commissioners Thursday backed off plans to eliminate the agency's role in protecting wetlands.

Instead, commissioners unanimously approved a compromise that cuts five positions at the agency and speeds up the review of building projects - an olive branch to developers who say the Environmental Protection Commission takes too long to approve permits.

The vote was a victory for the EPC's executive director, Richard Garrity, who said the compromise was practical, making his agency leaner and more cost efficient without sacrificing the protection of wetlands.

"It doesn't satisfy everyone," Garrity said. "But it makes us better."

It shaves $367,000 in salaries while clarifying many rules developers must follow. It sets up an advisory committee of developers, farmers and scientists who will help shape policy and enforcement. It exempts certain small wetlands from regulation, while consolidating some agency approvals into a "one-stop" process for developers.

The compromise caps two months of mounting public pressure on four commissioners - Brian Blair, Ken Hagan, Jim Norman and Kevin White - who initially voted to eliminate the $2-million division. They also endured a withering public hearing in July during which a majority of residents criticized them. Commissioners Rose Ferlita, Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe opposed the move and skirted the negative e-mails and phone calls from EPC supporters that bombarded the other commissioners in recent months.

White tried to convince a skeptical crowd Thursday that he wasn't changing his mind. He made the motion in June to abolish the wetlands division, but he said he did so to spur compromise.

"I'm developer friendly and environmentally friendly," White said. "Yes, it was unpopular to make that motion. But it got us here today."

The crowd wasn't buying it. Marcella O'Steen, president of the Balm Civic Association, said White was trying to "spin" his earlier vote to avoid political embarrassment.

"You made the motion to eliminate it," O'Steen said, as many residents applauded. "Don't tell me otherwise."

According to the transcript of the June meeting, here's what happened:

"I don't know if this will go anywhere," White said. "I'd like to propose a motion that the administration move to eliminate the duties of the EPC regarding the wetland division." Hagan seconded, and only later did Norman add that before eliminating the agency, they would consider a compromise by Garrity.

Norman credited that controversial vote, and Blair, for Thursday's result.

"We never would have gotten here without those four votes and the leadership of Blair," Norman said. "It was a bold move."

Twice, Norman told the crowd that commissioners "weren't in the pockets of developers," refuting a daylong parade of allegations from residents.

Blair noted that he had "taken a lot of bullets. There's no doubt about that."

Higginbotham and several pro-development speakers vaguely mentioned a vandalism incident at Blair's home, intimating that EPC supporters were behind it.

"I'm unhappy about the reports I've heard firsthand and in the paper about the unnecessary vandalism and the targeting of your home from people who oppose your position," Higginbotham told Blair during the meeting. "I just hope if anyone here has influence and can speak to folks who advocate your cause, you can discourage that because it doesn't help."

But Blair apparently didn't tell county law enforcement about recent threats or vandalism. The last time he enlisted the help of Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies, it was to report kids pelting his Forest Hills home with eggs, said sheriff's spokeswoman Vida Morgan. But that was May 5, before the June vote to end the wetlands division.

Cam Oberting, a Seffner resident, felt compelled to clear EPC supporters from suspicion.

"I'm very sorry about the vandalism," she said. "But it's all over the county. I guarantee you nobody in this room, the environmentalists, did that to your home."

Nearly 100 residents were listed as speaking on behalf of keeping the EPC intact. Many people scheduled to speak in opposition to the EPC, such as developer David Campo and attorney Keith Bricklemyer, left early. Developer Stephen Dibbs, who campaigned against the agency for most of the year, didn't speak either.

As the consensus built during the day, the tide turned, and elimination was no longer a threat by noon. In fact, by the afternoon, most residents wanted to make no changes and form a committee recommended by former Commissioner Jan Platt.

The crowd's confidence grew, and months of frustration with the commission spilled out.

Janet Kovach of Riverview told commissioners they had lost the public trust and asked that Blair resign.

"You don't have the skill sets to sit on the commission," she said.

After such a showing, EPC supporters were disappointed that commissioners chose the compromise, which many residents say may further weaken protections by speeding development reviews.

"I don't feel like celebrating at all," O'Steen said after the meeting. "They never even considered not doing anything and instead chose to go with the compromise. This is not a victory."

Times staff writer Michael A. Mohammed contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or [email protected]

[Last modified August 17, 2007, 09:13:57]

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Old August 17th, 2007, 06:01 PM   #23
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Those gathered at the Hillsborough County Commission meeting on Thursday dealing with the EPC/Wetlands Division started to pass around this blow up plastic can of "Whoop A—."

URBN Tampa Bay
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Old August 17th, 2007, 06:06 PM   #24
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I'm not one bit surprised by that tidbit. It makes me laugh actually!

The bottom line is that residents are fed up with with this proposal and I'm glad the BOCC FINALLY SAW THE LIGHT and is backing off from this ridiculous proposal.
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Old September 15th, 2007, 04:50 PM   #25
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Wetlands board criticized

Wetlands board criticized

Activists worry the board is too developer friendly.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2007

Wild flowers grow at the edge of a lake formed from a borrow pit created when Race Track Road was built.

TAMPA - The creation of a volunteer board of advisers helped seal the compromise that salvaged Hillsborough County's wetlands program. But with the board now chosen, some activists worry developers will have outsized influence in relaxing rules protecting the environment.

Of 18 people tapped to sit on the board that will review new wetlands policies and rules for the Environmental Protection Commission, at least nine work for companies that assist developers on projects that could be affected by the changes. Only one person is from a nongovernmental environmental group.

Terry Flott, the president of the United Citizens Action Network, a consortium of neighborhood groups, e-mailed the EPC Thursday: "I would hardly call this committee a small, unbiased, scientific-based group with no conflicts of interest."

The man who made the appointments is Richard Garrity, the EPC's executive director. He defended his choices as a practical way to get information from all sides.

Their disagreement drives at the heart of a compromise Garrity crafted this summer to fend off an effort to disband the $2-million division of his agency that protects wetlands. After initially voting to eliminate the division, commissioners changed their minds last month and approved Garrity's plan to speed reviews, scale down staff and ease some rules.

One caveat of Garrity's plan was that, despite changes made to streamline the review process and satisfy complaints from developers, the quality of wetlands protection wouldn't be sacrificed because expert observers would serve as a check on ill-advised changes.

Garrity sold this concept by pitching the idea of two committees. One committee, the Technical Advisory Group, would consist of experts who would review procedures and rules. A second committee would consist of "stakeholders," be it neighborhood residents or development interests, who would review general policies safeguarding wetlands. County commissioners would listen to both committees, as well as EPC staff, in making decisions on any changes.

To ensure the political neutrality of the two committees, Garrity said he would make the appointments himself. But now Garrity said commissioners will decide how to choose the "stakeholders".
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or [email protected]

Cockroach Bay is a protected area of wetlands that include mangrove forests, seagrass beds and marine animals. It is located on the eastern edge of Tampa Bay, southeast of St. Petersburg. The area is a protected area and water craft with internal combustion engines are not allowed outside of the main channel that runs through the sanctuary.


The volunteers

Marty Armstrong, president, Armstrong Inc.

Lee Cook, consultant, Quest Environmental.

Chuck Courtney, consultant, King Engineering.

Tom Crisman, freshwater ecologist with the Patel Center for Global Solutions, at the University of South Florida.

Derek Dougherty, engineer, Brooks & Amaden, Inc.

Scott Emory, president, EHI Inc.

Rhonda Evans, chief scientist, Environmental Protection Agency.

Eric Fehrmann, wetlands specialist with the Pinellas County Dept. of Environmental Management.

Steve Gran, Agriculture Economic Development Committee of Hillsborough County.

Jim Griffin, one of the creators of the Hillsborough Co. Watershed Atlas.

Ann Hogdson, director, Audubon

Pete Hubbell, former exec. director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, now a private consultant.

Alba Mas, SWFWMD.

Dale Meryman, president, Meryman Environmental Inc.

Jason Mickel, lakes advisory, Hills Co. Public Works/Stormwater

Tim Neldner, vice president, Biological Research Associates.

Tom Ries, vice president, Scheda Ecological Associates, Inc.

Wayne Richardson, consultant, Hill & Associates Inc., civil engineering, commercial and residential development.

[Last modified September 14, 2007, 22:56:08]

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Old September 26th, 2007, 04:41 PM   #26
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Funding parties revive dispute
A developer who led a drive to ease wetlands rules is helping raise money for candidates.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 26, 2007

TAMPA - A developer who led a drive to abolish Hillsborough County's wetlands program is now involved in another drive: to raise money for two commissioners who voted last month to ease wetlands rules.

Stephen Dibbs is on the host committee for two commissioners, Brian Blair and Ken Hagan, who had key votes that decided the fate of the county's $2-million wetlands program.

Dibbs pushed to abolish the program, but commissioners approved a compromise last month that preserved the program. The decision eased wetlands rules, cut the staff and made it faster for developers to get permits. Commissioners said the compromise made the county program more efficient without sacrificing the quality of the wetlands protections.

But some environmentalists and residents said the compromise hurts wetlands overall.

After learning Tuesday that Dibbs is helping raise money for Hagan's and Blair's 2008 re-election bids, the former director of the Environmental Protection Commission's wetlands division said the timing of the receptions "didn't pass the smell test."

"When commissioners start hanging out with those who led the attack on the wetlands, I think it looks politically bad," said Jadell Kerr, who resigned this summer after posting critical comments online about commissioners. "Why would commissioners go after the wetlands rule if not at the behest of these people? It just gives the environmental community more ammunition."

Blair's reception is scheduled for Thursday and Hagan's for Oct. 11. Both will be at Emerald Greens Golf & Country Club.

Dibbs is only one name on a list for the "event host committee" that includes 29 for Hagan and 30 for Blair.

But five others on that list have business or family ties to Dibbs. The contact person for the two events is Hung Mai, an engineer hired by Dibbs. Mai sent an e-mail Tuesday morning alerting more than 25 people, many of whom represent developers, to attend the receptions.

Mai was appointed by commissioners last week to the Planning Commission, which oversees the county's long-range growth plan. Mai said Dibbs and the wetlands issue had nothing to do with organizing the fundraiser.

Some residents said Mai's role in raising money for commissioners raised questions.

"Within a week of winning votes from Blair and Hagan, Mai turns around and starts raising money for them?" said Mariella Smith of Hillsborough County's Sierra Club.

Mai and Todd Pressman, another consultant who has worked for Dibbs, said their involvement had no relationship to Dibbs' effort or is in anyway improper.

"Personally, I don't see a conflict," Pressman said.

Mai said the fundraisers had been planned "three or four months ago" and didn't have anything to do with his appointment.

Hagan couldn't be reached, but his aide, Rich Reidy, said the timing of the events could give a bad impression.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," Reidy said. "But I can see their point."

Blair couldn't be reached.

Neither could Dibbs.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or [email protected].

[Last modified September 26, 2007, 00:09:16]


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Old May 16th, 2008, 05:32 PM   #27
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Hillsborough Wetlands Division Presents 'One-Stop' Permit Process


The Tampa Tribune

Published: May 16, 2008


Related Links

* Everglades Restoration Project Halted

TAMPA - Less than a year ago, the county's wetlands division was in jeopardy.

Developers complained the group's rules were too strict. Some Hillsborough County commissioners thought the group performed services already in place elsewhere.

Environmentalists and local activists balked. The Environmental Protection Commission's wetlands division, they said, provided important protections for vital wildlife nurseries and water filters.

So in a packed meeting in August, the county voted to save the wetlands division, but on the condition it revamp itself and come up with a better operating .

Thursday, wetlands division director Bon Stetler presented to commissioners a new set of rules and practices he said would take some of the mystery - and the criticisms - out of the permitting process.

He described "one-stop" permit shopping for developers, clearly written guidebooks and applications and rules that were posted online.

The presentation seemed to win over some members of the county commission, which was sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission.

"Congratulations on the progress you've made. I think it's given us a great guideline," said Commissioner Brian Blair, once one of the most vocal critics of the division.

It's not over for the wetlands division, though. The guidelines, nine months in the making, will be picked apart in workshops and at least one public hearing. The final product is expected to be adopted in July.

"One of the things we were attacked for was the mystery," Stetler said after the meeting, referring to complaints from developers that the wetlands protection rules made it too difficult to build.

Others complained some rules overlapped with other agencies, including the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Home to marsh-loving wildlife, wetlands provide a natural water filtration system and are home to numerous protected species.

Hillsborough's wetlands shelter the state's largest breeding colony of roseate spoonbills and 50 percent of the state's nesting white ibis.

Reporter Nicola M. White can be reached at (813) 259-7616 or [email protected].

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Old April 18th, 2009, 02:49 PM   #28
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Brian Blair denies having wetlands conversation with environmental official

By Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, April 18, 2009

TAMPA — Rick Garrity and Brian Blair know each other well.

Garrity is the executive director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. Blair is a former county commissioner who served a stint as EPC chairman that included the summer of 2007, when a cadre of developers, led by one of Blair's campaign fundraisers, sought to eliminate the agency's wetlands protection program.

Blair lost his re-election campaign in November, and the two hadn't spoken in months. So if the two talked by phone last month, it would have been memorable, right?

It was for Garrity.

He recalls Blair contacting him March 26 to ask about wetlands mitigation on 79 acres across from the Hard Rock Casino. They talked for 10 minutes, he says.

Blair, in an April 10 interview with the Times, said that conversation didn't take place.

"No," Blair replied. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He hung up on a reporter and didn't return later phone calls.

What's the former commissioner up to?

Garrity has a memo slip showing Blair called March 26 at 3:46 p.m., triggering a return call from Garrity. That message was written by his assistant, Joyce Moore. She sent Garrity an e-mail seven minutes later.

Both messages say Blair called about getting a report on the wetlands hybrid plan, which explains steps to develop property without violating environmental rules. The notes include the identification number of the land Blair wanted to discuss.

"Well, I talked with him, that's all I can say," Garrity said. "He said he never talked to me? Okay."

Garrity said the former commissioner wondered how to fit 100 parking spaces on the land without violating county rules on wetlands protection.

"He mentioned that someone needed some extra parking spaces and that they had noticed some land across from Hillsborough that had uplands and wetlands," Garrity said. "I'm not sure if he mentioned the casino or not. He asked if I knew anything about the property."

There's nothing wrong with a former commissioner calling to get information or asking staff to do something for a friend. A county ordinance requires commissioners wait two years before they can get paid to lobby the county, but Garrity said Blair was only asking questions.

Blair doesn't own the land in question. A Miami company, KIS, LLC, does. "I've never heard of this gentleman," said its manager, Gladys Patino.

The Hard Rock Cafe hasn't hired or heard of Blair, either, said its spokesman, Gary Bitner.

Garrity said Blair mentioned Larry Jordan, a developer, in his conversation. He didn't remember the context. Jordan plans to build an affordable housing project nearby. He needs land to create or enhance existing wetlands in exchange for the wetlands his project will destroy. He said he doesn't need it for parking.

While Jordan said he did discuss the project with Blair last month, he said he didn't ask him to call Garrity.

"Not that I know of," said Jordan, who said Blair is not working for him in any capacity.

"You'll have to ask him about the phone call," he said.

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402.

[Last modified: Apr 17, 2009 11:49 PM]

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Old April 19th, 2009, 05:50 AM   #29
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I'm glad Blair is gone...
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Old April 19th, 2009, 06:57 AM   #30
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Blair was an ass. "Oh I'm macho" attitude just doesn't cut it, even in politics.
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