News Section: Local Government
Best of 2013: Wetlands: Safe Or Slippery Slope
BRADENTON -- At Tuesday's Manatee County Board of County Commissioner meeting, members adopted Ordinance 13-04, amending the Land Development Code Section 719 (wetlands). The restating of the wetland code "codified" what had been convoluted language along with practices that remained in conflict with the county's Comprehensive Plan. Deputy County Attorney Bill Clague warned commissioners of dire consequences if they refused to act now, but critics claim the changes only favor developers and will eventually undermine the spirit of the county's history of protecting its dwindling number of wetlands.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell who Clague is working for," says Barbara Angelucci, adding, "except that we pay his salary."
Angelucci has been following the series of meetings that led to Tuesday's final vote approving the changes. Other community leaders at the hearing expressed similar sentiments and didn't limit their criticism to Clague's performance.
Linda Jones said, "Every wetland is unique, but they all hold millions of gallons of water." Jones added, "We need to take our time and go back and look at this, because I don't see the rush either. I don't think you are really reflecting the intent of the overall goal of your Comp Plan and federal regulations."
Cathy Wooley, a 10-year Manatee County resident from Lakewood Ranch, said, "We didn't elect you as commissioners because we thought you were technical experts on water, and we certainly didn't elect you because you practiced legal issues on the side. We elected you because we think you represent the everyman in the community, different strokes for different folks," adding, "We may need more expertise than any of you have."
County Attorney Sarah Schenk came forward and said, "I've heard no member of the public speak in any public hearing that you should have impact studies. I've heard no member of the public speak that we shouldn't have the application process, and no member of the public challenged any of the procedures we have in here."
Does Schenk also need to be reminded who she works for and who pays for her check?
Sandy Ripberger, Conservation Chair for the Manatee/Sarasota Sierra Club, said, "We (as a county) don't even ask the developers to work around the wetlands," Ripberger later said, "Nothing in the scientific literature refers to 'non-viable.' No other county uses this term. And there are counties that prohibit impact, Hillsborough and Martin County are two. We don't believe the term non-viable needs to be introduced."
Both Schenk and Clague said that the language in the code needed to survive scrutiny so as to not be dismissed by the courts, and that often, with both, one legal opinion contradicted the other in the same sentence. The term "non-viable wetland" is verbiage that would seem unlikely to remain intact through any legal challenge, however. Non-viable could be a perfect example of what they both advised against.
Clague insists the amendment to the LDC is essential to the future of remaining wetlands, but if Clague's answers to the questions asked about wetlands during Thursday's meeting symbolize their fate, that would seem unlikely.
Commissioner Benac said she likes the term and that it is "our term" (the county's) and that she is "proud of it." Benac may be finding pride in what could someday emerge as a self-inflicted wound.
Twice Clague permitted terminology to be used that confused "non-viable wetland" with the term "viable wetland."
Commissioner Whitmore asked, "The language non-viable wetland dates back to 1989, to the Comp Plan, right? As Clague slowly backed from the microphone, he clearly answered, "Yes."
Joel Christian from environmental resources hesitated for a second and then stepped to the microphone and corrected the answer, saying, "viable" (referring to the verbiage used in Whitmore's reference to the 1989 Comp Plan) and then Clague stood behind Christian and softly said "good point."
Right, like clarifying the difference between guilty and not guilty.
Definition seemed to be the challenge of the day. What is an isolated wetland? Clague repeatedly said it was one with a UMAM score of 0.4 (40 percent functional) or less, separated from others and "not connected." No one defined what "connected" meant. Connected to what? And any connection that functions, even at 40 percent, is connected in some way to the aquifer. Doesn't that mean they all are connected?
Wetlands grow and they die, like all life on Earth, and at what stage of life are any wetlands, at any time -- half empty or half full. A complete inventory and monitoring program would be the first tool needed to assess their past, current and future size; and even closer observation would be required to judge their functionality.
Clague and staff claim, "We would not be allowed to go on private property to accomplish that." But they wouldn't need to. Satellite imaging could do a far better job.
What seems to be the case, is that there is no case to rush to judgment. As three commissioners (Baugh, Gallen, Whitmore) demonstrated, there are far more questions than answers at this point. Unless of course the only one that counts is the Cui Bono (who benefits) one.
I saw an interesting headline just after the meeting: Neal Homes Buys 812 Acres In Parrish For $8 million. The citizens showed they were unhappy with the policy, but it seems the developers are tickled.
The Cui Bono Wetland Policy
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