Miami-Dade County's plan for protecting manatees is regarded as one of the best in the state, an example for other Florida counties to follow.
But now county commissioners want to rewrite the 13-year-old plan to accommodate a growing demand for more boat docks. Among the people picked to rewrite it: a man fined $150,000 for illegally building docks in manatee habitat.
And the push for a change comes from county commissioners frequently regarded as unfriendly to environment regulations in general and manatees in particular.
"I am not a lover of manatees," Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas announced four years ago.
Manatee protection plans spell out where new marinas and boat slips can be built to avoid harming manatee habitat and show which waterways have speed limits to make boaters slow down.
Last year state officials were on the verge of taking manatees off the endangered list. Miami-Dade County commissioners decided the time was right to rewrite their plan "in view of changes in the status of the manatee and ... increasing demand for boating access," according to a letter from one county official.
Gov. Charlie Crist intervened in December to halt the change in the manatee's status, and on Wednesday the state wildlife commission will discuss fixing the flaws in how it lists imperiled species.
Yet Miami-Dade is going ahead with spending about $700,000 to replace a plan that state officials say is "already successfully addressing risks to manatees." Save the Manatee Club executive director Pat Rose fears other counties will follow, which he called "a prescription for disaster."
To oversee the rewrite, the commissioners appointed a 14-member committee which includes Dick Bunnell, a dock builder.
Three years ago, a federal judge fined Bunnell $150,000 for building docks in manatee habitat without getting permits from the Corps of Engineers. He was also sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service and five years of probation. While Bunnell was building the illegal docks — from 2001 to 2004 — county officials warned him that he would need federal permits, but he did it anyway, according to the corps.
To Bunnell, the big problem with the county's current manatee protection plan is that it limits where docks can be built.
"There's way too much restriction and resistance to docks and boat ramps and boat slips, and that's a segment of our economy that's so strong in South Florida," he said. "I don't believe docks kill manatees. What hurts manatees is boaters that are not obeying the law."
However, restrictions on docks in manatee habitat are "a required component of the plan," said Carol Knox of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The commissioner who selected Bunnell to the committee, Natacha Seijas, has made it clear she is no fan of manatees. Her views led a television commentator to dub her "the Cruella DeVil of Biscayne Bay," a reference to the villain in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
At a discussion about coastal management issues four years ago, she complained about manatees swimming in the canal behind her house, because "as dumb as they always are they keep floating back and forth." She said she wanted county employees "to come and pick them up."
"I want to know how big that herd is, because if that herd is way too big it is time to find something else to do with it," she added.
Three years ago, during a discussion about manatees in Biscayne Bay, Seijas said, "I don't see why we need to be creating an environment so they can continue."
None of her colleagues on the commission has been as blunt. However, Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro, during the meeting where Seijas made her comments on the manatees behind her house, said, "There is a huge shortage of (boat) slips" and "slip prices are sky-high." Barreiro recently complained about state growth management officials who he said were "very anti any development."
Barreiro, who sponsored the commission's move to rewrite its manatee protection plan, did not return a call seeking comment.
Manatee protection plans have long stirred controversy.
In 1989, then-Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet told 13 coastal counties to prepare manatee protection plans: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River, St. Lucie, Brevard, Volusia, Duval, Collier, Lee, Sarasota and Citrus. They were supposed to finish by 1993. A decade after the Cabinet decree, though, only four had complied.
One was Miami-Dade, and its plan did exactly what all the plans were supposed to do, Rose said. Like state officials, Rose contends there is no need to change what works.
The review committee has held one public hearing so far. A majority of the audience of about 50 said the county should not change its plan, said committee member Lynda Green, who agrees.
"I think the commissioners want to reopen this because they want more development, they want more docks, and everything they want will be less protection for the manatee," she said. At her suggestion, the committee recently visited injured manatees at the Miami Seaquarium because "how much data do you need when you see a manatee whose tail has just come off in your hands?"
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Miami Herald.