County Vote Is Grounds For Concern

When it comes to the environment, Florida has earned its reputation for preferring pavement over paradise. Faustian deals for strip centers, malls, condo corridors, cul-de-sac enclaves and exigent infrastructure are legion.

But increasingly so are growth compacts that bring necessary economic development – from jobs to affordable housing to a broadened tax base. Not unlike nature itself, smart growth is not a zero-sum game, but a balancing act.

Which brings us to the recent action by Hillsborough County Commissioners. Sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, the commission voted to eliminate local control over wetlands protection by disbanding the 22-year-old wetlands management division of the county EPC. Without public discussion. From a script for smart, enlightened self-interest growth to a scenario that smarts.

First of all, the EPC is chaired by riparian renegade Brian Blair. That’s like having Rosie O’Donnell emcee the Miss America Pageant.

The procedurally maladroit, fact-challenged Blair has had the wetlands management division in his budget cross hairs for a while. He characterizes it as an unnecessary expense and a redundant hurdle for developers – given that there are federal and state regulations.

That it protects wetlands of a half-acre or less, which the state doesn’t, is of no ecological relevance to one who thinks mitigation projects are nature’s equal. In effect, if you’ve seen one marshland, you’ve seen them all.

That the net savings would be less than $800,000 on a county budget of $3.8 billion is immaterial. In fact, additional cost cuts should result from EPC Executive Director Rick Garrity’s proposed “one-stop” permitting process.

Moreover, the proposed budget cuts of County Administrator Pat Bean didn’t even reference wetlands regulation at all. Obviously she recognizes the difference between a wildlife-friendly investment in flood and erosion prevention and county commission sophistry at its counterproductive worst.

Hillsborough County, however, still must hold another hearing before the county’s commitment to wetlands is officially watered down. That means a turnout that isn’t comprised largely of the narrowly self-interested is paramount.

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