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Why rush? Consider effects on wetlands carefully

The office of Mike McHugh, Hernando County's business development director, does vital work: promoting economic diversity, attracting wealth that spreads to other businesses and decent jobs that cut the need for wasteful commutes.

Wetlands also do great things: capturing floodwater, recharging the aquifer, filtering out pollution and providing wildlife habitat.

But if I had to choose the one that needs help from the state Legislature, I'd choose wetlands.

Wetlands in Florida, you see, have always been abused, bulldozed, ditched and drained.

That was true in the first century-plus of statehood, when "wetlands were considered wastelands and 'draining the swamp' was a metaphor for solving festering problems,'' Michael Grunwald wrote in his 2006 history, The Swamp: Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.

It is true even now. Though federal policy supposedly tolerates no net loss of wetlands, 84,000 acres of marshes and prairies were destroyed for development between 1990 and 2003, according to a 2005 report in the St. Petersburg Times.

So wetlands are the underdogs here. Economic progress always comes out on top, always basks in privilege. It is the rich kid, the playground bully. Wetlands are the skinny guy that gets pushed into the dirt.

I guess Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, doesn't see it this way.

A bill he filed called the "Mike McHugh Act'' — sponsored in the Senate by Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey — will cut the review period for environmental permits issued by water management districts and the state Department of Environmental Protection to 45 days from 90.

Schenck said that when he was a county commissioner, talking to companies considering a move to Hernando, "the first question they asked was, 'How fast can we start construction?' ''

He could promise speedy county permits, he said, but the Southwest Florida Water Management District, "while they did their best, was always the missing ingredient.''

The streamlined rules will apply just to enterprises that cities or counties have targeted, such as manufacturing plants or distribution centers, Schenck said.

Swiftmud says the 45-day clock would start ticking only when the application is complete — usually after a lot of back-and-forth between the business and the district. Though Swiftmud would prefer 60 days of review, "we feel like 45 days is workable,'' said spokeswoman Robyn Hanke.

So, maybe this isn't a huge blow to wetland protection. Maybe, with a recession looming, it can be justified.

Except that in most cases, it won't help, said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, who calls Schenck's bill "stupid and unnecessary.''

Schenck could not name any businesses scared away by the prospect of long permit reviews. And, on average, the reviews take water management districts just over 30 days, Draper said.

Schenck says that for businesses he has in mind, "mostly, these aren't average permits.'' Yes, because the bill could apply to water-bottling plants or major resorts, Draper said.

And for projects such as these, aren't longer reviews justified? Or do you want to stand there while the little guy gets another shove?

Why rush? Consider effects on wetlands carefully 03/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 3:36pm]
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