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No Adverse Impact to Wetlands in Wakulla County Determined by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Determined

No Adverse Impact to Wetlands in Wakulla County Determined by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Determined

Source: Tallahassee Democrat, February 20, 2014, Jennifer Portman

The Wakulla County Commission eliminated wetlands protections from its comprehensive plan as expected on Tuesday, as organizers of a citizen-led petition drive announced they will have enough signatures to let voters decide the issue in November.

The commission voted 4 to 1 to remove from its comp plan a provision that calls for a 75-foot buffer around wetlands. The move is the first step, begun last summer, to get rid of the county’s wetlands protection ordinance, which bans all development within 35 feet of wetlands and restricts building within 40 additional feet if no other options exist.

The current majority of the board says the rule is an unnecessary impediment to development and infringes on personal property rights in a county where about 60 percent of the land is wetlands. The move signals a departure from years of efforts to enhance local policies aimed at water-quality protection. Three years ago, the board, with different members, unanimously approved the reinstatement of the ordinance, first adopted in 2006.

Commissioner Ralph Thomas said he expects the commission will press ahead and vote to rescind the enforcing ordinance as soon as possible, despite recommendations from the county’s planning staff that the board wait until after the results of the November vote. He stressed existing state regulations provide enough protection for wetlands.

“I love the wetlands just as much as anyone, but some people want too much protection,” Thomas said. “We are giving rights back to our citizens. I do believe this vote is going to fail.”

Commissioner Howard Kessler, the lone board member opposed to striking the local wetlands protections, asked in August that the land-use decision be left to the citizens. When the effort was rejected in another 4-to-1 board vote, citizens mobilized and launched an initiative-petition drive to put the question on the November general election ballot.

If supporters of the initiative petition drive prevail at the ballot box, the wetlands ordinance would be reinstated and only could be removed by a unanimous vote of the commission or another citizen vote.

“I think we’ve got a good shot,” said Ron Piasecki, with the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance, which started collecting signatures in September and will now shift to educating voters. “We will know in November, is all I can say.”

The alliance began turning in petitions last week — well ahead of a March 3 deadline. More than 6,000 people have signed the petitions, exceeding the 5,550 needed, and all are expected to be turned in by the middle of next week for verification by the Wakulla County Supervisor of Elections.

To get the issue on the ballot requires signatures from 30 percent of registered voters in the county and in each of its five voting precincts, a bar three times as high as must be met in other charter-government counties, such as Leon County. If for some reason organizers come up short, they will have 30 days to make up the shortfall.

Thomas said commission action to get rid of the ordinance likely would begin in about a month. State agencies or other interested parties have 30 days to challenge the county’s move.

Piasecki said the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance has not yet discussed whether it will mount a challenge to the Tuesday’s comp plan change.

“The ordinance can stand by itself without a comp plan,” he said.

Piasecki, who also heads the Wakulla Springs Alliance, said that group is considering if it will take action and plans to talk with the Department of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Environmental Protection about at least writing a strongly worded letter.

Thomas said officials with DEO and DEP told him they have no plans to challenge the plan amendment.

A DEO spokeswoman said Wednesday the amendment will be sent to other appropriate state agencies for comment and the land-planning agency will determine if a challenge is warranted. DEO, which was created by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, has never challenged a local comprehensive plan amendment.

A DEP spokeswoman said the authority to challenge such amendments rests with DEO and the change by Wakulla County was not a cause for concern.

“DEP determined that the County’s proposed comprehensive plan amendment would not result in an adverse impact to important state resources,” agency spokeswoman Mara Burger wrote in an email Wednesday.

But both DEP and the Northwest Florida Water Management District indicated in written comments prior to the commission’s vote Tuesday that the county’s additional measures are needed to protect the fragile ecosystem.

While the state’s Environmental Resource Permitting program calls for a 25-foot-average buffer from larger-scale development near wetlands, both agencies said Wakulla County’s local buffer restriction provided better protection for wetlands, surface water and the function of their related habitats. The state buffer rules do not apply to all development.

DEP said in its December comment letter the county’s development goals could be accomplished by maintaining some additional buffering around wetlands and called the measure “a valuable tool for the county to protect surface water quality.”

“There are many areas where the Wakulla County Ordinance would provide more protection,” DEP’s letter said. “Those wetlands are valuable resources and do provide protection to important state resources.”

DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said later Wednesday the agency’s decision to not oppose a plan does not counter to its previous comments.

“While the County’s requirements related to buffers exceed those of the state, DEP believes that setback requirements under ERP are adequate to ensure that wetlands are not adversely impacted,” Gillespie said in an email. “Setbacks for existing karst features and springs, which also provide a valuable tool in protecting water quality, will remain in place.”

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