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Bill will adversely affect environment, but will it create jobs?

Builders of homes, offices, roads and other projects have been allowed to wipe out more wetlands in Florida than in any other state. But now, in the name of sparking job growth, state lawmakers want to make it even easier to develop wetlands and just write a check for the damage.

The 63 pages of CS/HB 991, which passed its latest committee vote Wednesday 14-0, are packed with changes to the state's wetlands, water pollution and development permitting rules.

The bill makes it easier to build roads through wetlands, easier for polluters to escape punishment, easier to open new phosphate mines and harder for regulators to yank a permit from someone who did things wrong.

If it passes, the bill is also going to have "a significant negative fiscal impact" on the state budget, according to a committee staff analysis.

As for how many jobs it will create, "I think next to none," said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. The sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, was not available for comment.

The most complicated section of the bill steers more money to a little-known industry known as wetland mitigation banking —- and overturns a 2010 court ruling that thwarted one of the banks from getting big bucks for preserving a lot of dry land and calling it wet.

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Over the past 15 years, the wetland mitigation banking industry has reaped a billion-dollar bounty by convincing lawmakers it is the answer to saving the nation's wetlands. The theory goes like this: Developers are required to replace any wetland they destroy, an expensive task that often fails. Enter the mitigation banker, who buys land that used to be a swamp and restores it. Regulators calculate how many "credits" the banker can sell, each equal to an acre of pristine wetlands.

Thus a developer can skip the headache of doing the work himself and simply write a check to the banker. Mitigation credits in Florida have sold for more than $100,000 each depending on where the bank is located.

Federal rules say the point of mitigation banks is "to provide for the replacement of the chemical, physical and biological functions of wetlands," which stem floods, filter pollution and replenish the water supply.

But the system often depends on accounting methods that do little to replace what's being lost. The most flagrant problems: dry land that masquerades as wet, and banks that get credit for merely preserving land instead of restoring it.

A 2006 St. Petersburg Times investigation found that a quarter of the mitigation banks in Florida claimed a third or more of their credits for saving dry land, not wetlands — but they were still selling those credits to make up for wiping out swamps, bogs and marshes. Some banks got their credits for preserving land, rather than restoring anything. One Central Florida bank had been awarded more than 90 percent of its credits for preserving dry land, not restoring wetlands.

A 2007 study for the state Department of Environmental Protection found that most of Florida's mitigation banks had failed to replace the wetland being developed by people buying credits.

HB 991 does not address these issues. Instead the bill orders the state Department of Transportation to give first preference to using private mitigation banks to make up for wetlands paved over by new roads, steering millions in state money to the bankers.

It also changes the rules on permits to make it easier for new banks to get credits for just preserving land, not restoring anything. Lee called that "inappropriately misleading." That was the big issue with the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank in Clay County.

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A private equity firm spent $15 million to buy a 1,575-acre North Florida pine plantation next to Jennings State Forest, with plans to turn it into the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank.

The application that the Carlyle Group and its partners at Hassan & Lear Acquisitions filed sought 688 credits. But the agency that issued the state permit, the St. Johns River Water Management District, approved only 193 credits — a difference potentially worth millions.

Last year the bank's owners filed a legal challenge to their own state permit. Their attorney, Frank Matthews, argued that state officials applied the wrong standards. He contended that just preserving their land should be worth a lot more credits than the water district was willing to give them. They lost.

So HB 991 — which Patronis has said was partly written by Matthews — changes the rules to fit what the Highlands Ranch bankers wanted. It says state regulators should accept whatever scores the applicants come up with. And it allows existing banks to seek a recalculation of their credits based on the new rules.

"We are very excited that the legislation seeks to bring consistency and uniformity to a methodology that was enacted … as a 'uniform assessment mitigation methodology,' " Matthews said in an e-mail replying to questions from the Times.

When asked how this would benefit his client, Matthews said, "The direct effect on Highlands or any applicant is unknown until their application is properly evaluated."

Bill will adversely affect environment, but will it create jobs? 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 12:14am]

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