Wednesday, December 13, 2017
News Roundup

DEP secretary denies controversial wetlands permit, vindicating agency expert

Florida's top environmental regulator has denied a permit for a controversial wetlands project, saying it failed to offer a reasonable assurance that it would work.

The decision late Friday by Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. in effect upholds the warnings of the DEP's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, who was relieved of duty, investigated and taken off the case last year.

The permit was for the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, created in 2008 when a politically influential private equity firm named the Carlyle Group formed a joint venture with a Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions. They spent $15 million buying a 1,575-acre pine plantation next to Jennings State Forest.

The company planned to turn the plantation into a business that attempts to make up for wetlands wiped out by new roads and development. At stake: millions of dollars in wetland credits that can be sold to governments and developers when their roads, houses and other projects wipe out marshes, swamps and bogs.

The problem, according to a memo last year from Bersok, was that the owners wanted the DEP to give them lots of wetland credits for land that isn't wet, using a method that no one else used.

Highlands Ranch originally sought a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District, but wasn't satisfied with how many credits that permit approved. A legal challenge failed, as did an attempt to get the Legislature to change the rules.

Highlands Ranch hired a lobbyist named Ward Blakely who had previously worked with Vinyard. Then DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn, an engineering consultant who had recently been hired by Vinyard, issued a memo ordering a change in the way credits were calculated. The first draft, Littlejohn said, was written for him by the attorney for Highlands Ranch.

The company applied for a new permit from DEP that would supersede the one from the water district and be worth 425 credits. But Bersok — who helped write the state standards for credits — raised questions that Blakely complained were "punitive."

After being told by Littlejohn to ignore the rules she had followed on other permits, Bersok wrote, "I hereby state my objection to the intended agency action and refusal to recommend this permit for issuance."

Bersok was put on leave and under the microscope. Documents from the investigation that followed show her bosses were worried she was blabbing to reporters and environmental activists about flaws in the permit. She testified under oath that she was not.

Bersok was reinstated, but taken off the Highlands Ranch permit review. DEP officials approved the permit, giving the owners all the credits they had asked for.

The Florida Wildlife Federation filed a legal challenge. In April, a judge with the state Department of Administrative Hearings ruled the permit should be rejected by the DEP.

Bersok's testimony about what happened offered "the most credible and reliable application of reasonable scientific judgment," the judge ruled.

The judge noted that no one at DEP could explain how they came up with the numbers used in the permit and blasted Littlejohn and the DEP for creating a new approach "developed by the department and Highlands Ranch, without opportunity for public participation or input."

Vinyard, in his 113-page decision, ruled that the way the permit was written, it "did not provide reasonable assurance of successful implementation" as required by state law, and its application was denied.

Highlands Ranch's owners can challenge Vinyard's decision by taking it to circuit court. A spokeswoman said that so far they had not seen the order.

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Market starting to set itself as Rays’ trade talks intensify

Market starting to set itself as Rays’ trade talks intensify

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Alex Colome claimed he was just showing good social media manners Tuesday night in following four Cardinals-related Instagram accounts since they were saying nice things about him.In doing so, whether for that reason or another, Co...
Updated: 10 minutes ago
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith named to fill Franken seat

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith named to fill Franken seat

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith on Wednesday to fill fellow Democrat Al Franken’s Senate seat until a special election in November, setting up his longtime and trusted adviser for a potentially bruising 2018...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Florida Toys for Tots charity raffles off AR-15 rifle. Gun debate ensues.

Florida Toys for Tots charity raffles off AR-15 rifle. Gun debate ensues.

SPRING HILL — Hernando County Commission Vice Chairman Steve Champion wanted to do something to help raise money for the annual Toys for Tots drive. So he donated the grand prize for the Nov. 18 raffle:It was an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.That led to ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Gators crash volleyball power party, play national semifinal Thursday

Gators crash volleyball power party, play national semifinal Thursday

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s difficult to call a volleyball program that has been to the Final Four eight times an underdog, especially the way Florida rallied to beat Southern California and punch its latest ticket. Yet of the four schools descending on ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Thefts from cell towers interrupted service, deputies say

Thefts from cell towers interrupted service, deputies say

Lost cell signal recently? The culprit could be a 40-year-old Ruskin man who deputies said stole thousands of dollars worth of the equipment that powers cell towers. The theft interrupted cell tower signals on at least two occasions, deputies said, i...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Senate race motivated Alabama’s white, black evangelical voters in different ways

Senate race motivated Alabama’s white, black evangelical voters in different ways

Nationally, the word "evangelical" has become in recent years nearly synonymous with "conservative Republican" and Alabama is one of the most evangelical states in the country. But in Alabama, there is a difference: black Christians.While in many par...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Foot washes ashore in Canada, again; Abbas wants U.S. out as Mideast mediator; 12 sentenced to life for gang-raping kids; more in world news

Foot washes ashore in Canada, again; Abbas wants U.S. out as Mideast mediator; 12 sentenced to life for gang-raping kids; more in world news

CanadaJust another foot washing ashoreAnother human foot has been found on British Columbia’s coastline, the 13th such grim discovery since 2007. Police said a man was walking on the beach in Jordan River on Vancouver Island when his dog found the fo...
Updated: 1 hour ago
St. Petersburg police arrest Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir, several others, in death of 22-year-old woman found in alley

St. Petersburg police arrest Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir, several others, in death of 22-year-old woman found in alley

ST. PETERSBURG — Police have arrested several people, including a son of a prominent flooring store chain’s late founder, as part of an investigation into the death of a 22-year-old woman whose body was found in an alley last year.The woman, Taylor M...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Is this asteroid an alien ship?; Omarosa out; Newtown ‘still so raw’; more in U.S. news

Is this asteroid an alien ship?; Omarosa out; Newtown ‘still so raw’; more in U.S. news

SpaceIs this asteroid an alien ship?Scientists are studying an object that’s tumbling through our solar system to see if it’s a disabled alien spaceship. You read that right. Unlike other asteroids, ‘Oumuamua — Hawaiian for "first messenger" — is ci...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Pasco school district, employees reach contract agreement

The raises for Pasco County school district employees aren’t as high as anyone would like, but they’re now part of a signed tentative contract deal reached just before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.If ratified by the staff and the School Board, the agreements ...
Updated: 1 hour ago