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Wetlands: A look at both sides of the issue

Wetlands: A look at both sides of the issue

 

The Wakulla News Wednesday, January 8, 2014

By AMANDA MAYOR amayor@thewakullanews.net

Editor’s Note: In an effort to represent both sides of the wetlands issue, The News sat down with an advocate for each side, Chad Hanson and Commissioner Ralph Thomas.

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“The thing is, the stuff that I do on my property…it still affects other people.  If I dump oil on my land, it’s going to affect others and the environment.”

Chad Hanson is an environmental advocate for a non-profit company where he does a lot of work with fisheries and the sustainability in the Gulf. Hanson, who lives along the Wakulla River in the Mysterious Waters neighborhood, was part of the original Concerned Citizens of Wakulla group in the early 2000’s and has long been a close follower of the county’s wetlands issues. Hanson is a strong supporter of keeping development projects out of wetlands areas.

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“We need to find a balance between protecting the environment and protecting a person’s individual freedoms.”

Ralph Thomas is vice-chairman of the Board of County Commissioners and a major proponent in advocating for the rights of property owners when it comes to current wetlands issues.  Commissioner 

Thomas feels it is his job as a politician in a representative form of government to provide a voice for those who stand in smaller numbers. He acknowledges the need for environmental protections and said that he greatly respects those that are passionate about them, but that a balance is needed between rights and protections.

In order to get to the crux of their argument, both Hanson and Thomas were asked to try to look at the issue of wetlands protections from the other sides’ point of view and then explain what exactly it is that they don’t agree with.  “They want people to be able to use the property that they bought and own,” Hanson said. “But there’s a disconnect there. The thing is, the stuff that I do on my property – yeah, it’s mine – but it still affects other people. If I dump oil on my land, it’s going to affect others and the environment.”  Hanson said he understands the pull for individual property rights and that commissioners don’t want to infringe on those, but that government has a role.  “They set the framework and infrastructure and are responsible for the greater good and for the environment,” he said.

Commissioner Thomas said, “This is my home, I grew up here and I chose to raise my children here. I care about this environment just as much as those who are fighting for this ordinance to stay in place,” he said. “But we need to find a balance between protecting the environment and protecting a person’s individual freedoms.”  Thomas said that he agrees with and understands the science behind wanting the protections.  “But there’s no specific science that says a 75-foot buffer is good and 74 is bad,” he said. “Obviously 500 feet is better, but that’s not realistic.”

Thomas has been criticized in the past for being one of the commissioners who let an item die at a board meeting that would have brought in different state agencies and experts to have a workshop on wetlands and their environmental impacts.  (The Wakulla News made a mistake with this statement.  I voted with Commissioner Kessler to conduct a workshop with the state agencies.)  “To me, it’s obvious – you don’t really need a scientific argument to convince me that the more buffer the better,” he said. “But where do you draw the line between protecting the environment and protecting an individual’s rights? My thing is, if an individual, like those who are for the protections and also live on and near wetlands, can live in harmony with the environment, then why can’t his neighbor?”

Wakulla County wetlands buffers were originally established in 1995, not through an ordinance but, rather, through a conservation element of the county’s comprehensive plan.  It was not until the spring of 2006 that Wakulla saw its first wetlands ordinance passed. However, Judge N. Sanders Sauls threw out that ordinance in 2009 because of problems in how it was enacted – which were brought to the courts attention through a lawsuit filed against code enforcement.  The next year, in 2010, the then-county commission adopted the current ordinance, which was reformed by a wetlands advisory committee. The proposed ordinance passed then with a unanimous 5-0 vote.  That ordinance is the one that was challenged last June when Commissioner Randy Merritt brought an item to the table wanting to establish a variance procedure which would make it possible for those with wetlands on their property to build inside the buffer zone if no other option was available for them to use their land.

A short time after, in July, Commissioner Richard Harden brought an item before the board, which proposed the county’s added protections be gotten rid of all together.  That item, like Merritt’s, passed with a 4-1 vote – the lone vote each time cast by Commissioner Howard Kessler.

Since that time, a group of concerned citizens banned together to form an organization called the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance (WWA), which as been collecting petitions in an effort to get the county’s wetlands ordinance on the referendum, allowing citizens of the county to vote on the matter.  Currently, WWA is continuing with collecting petitions and four of the five commissioners have made it clear that they have no intention of changing their minds.  It is the decision of those four commissioners – Jerry Moore, Merritt, Thomas and Harden– that Hanson says he doesn’t understand.  “On the sign coming into Wakulla County, it claims that this is ‘The natural place to be,’” he said. “We are trying to promote things like our eco-tourism, birding and our scenic highway, but if we are going to capitalize on those then protecting our wetlands is a natural fit with that.” Hanson said that areas with wetlands are not only attractive, but that they play huge roles in providing habitats, food for wildlife and other environmental assets. When it comes down to it, he said, there’s just a vast difference between state ability and local ability when dealing with the county’s wetlands.  “The state said point blank that it would be less costly for both the state and the local government to keep our protections,” said Hanson. “They simply do not have the manpower or ability to send inspectors to properties, but we have the ground level knowledge and the ability to regulate development properly.”

Commissioner Thomas gave an example of a case that he knows of currently of a man who owns a piece of property in Spring Creek who is trying to build a home.  “He’s been working with Planning and Zoning to figure out a size for his home,” Thomas said. “But he’s at the point where he’s got to build it at multiple stories and shrink the footprint to 700 square feet.”  This person, Thomas said, has already obtained state permitting, but Wakulla County, because of the current protections, is telling him he can’t build on his property.  “Now, we’ve effectively taken his property away from him,” Thomas said. “When and if he goes looking for someone to sue, who is he going to choose?”  Thomas pointed out that it will mostly likely be the county, in which case it will be the citizens who will foot the bill.

What do you think?

2 Responses to “Wetlands: A look at both sides of the issue”

  1. Jeff Tilley says:

    I have two types of wetlands on my property: 1) vernal pools that fill in the spring and supply habitat for tadpoles and salamanders. These pools dry up at certain times of the year. 2) I also have acreage that adjoins a riverine blackwater creek that disappears down a big sinkhole and reappears at Spring Creek. So you might say that my wetlands represent every conceivable type of wetland there is. Here is what I know: I take good care of my property. I am a good steward. I don’t need or want feds or my neighbors in Shell Point to be involved with or concerned about what I do with my property. If some one MUST be concerned, I am willing to allow the professionals in State Government or County Government to work with me and give me advice or approval for what I do with my own property. I want SCIENCE, not emotion.

  2. Kathi Acker says:

    Some of us do not need the government telling us that “dumping oil” on our land would be detrimental to our neighbors and the environment. Common sense dictates that if it would be dangerous for my neighbor and the environment then it would first be dangerous to ourselves. However if someone is foolish enough to do something so drastic as to create unhealthy conditions for their neighbors and the environment then that person should be dealt with on an individual basis vs. requiring everyone in the entire county to abide by the same law; one that may not necessarily apply to them. Where do we finally draw the line?

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