Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Back scratchers at mitigation bank

There's simply no justice sometimes. This wonderful company, the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, is just trying to make a buck by protecting Florida's wetlands so that other developers can destroy them, only to be stymied by paper-pushing, tree-hugging bureaucrats all lathered up over stuff like following the law.

It's just not fair.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman, all Highlands Ranch wants is a permit to convert 1,575 acres of a pine plantation in Clay County into a wetlands mitigation bank. Is this too much to ask?

After all, throughout Florida history, wetlands have been the bane of developers. You can't build something on a swamp. But because of those pesky little issues like recharging the aquifer, the source of Floridians' drinking water, the state decided maybe it should try to save some and created a program for folks like Highlands Ranch. Landowners make promises to maintain or restore wetlands, creating wetlands mitigation credits, which can then be sold for as much as $100,000 per credit to developers who want to destroy wetlands elsewhere.

If only the Department of Environmental Protection's forces of tyranny had not stepped in. The agency's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, refused to approve the Highlands Ranch permit after reviewing application documents that suggested Highlands Ranch had little interest in actually restoring any wetlands. Bersok's inner Amy Winehouse kicked in and she said, "No, no, no."

And so what if Highlands Ranch didn't want to have to put up a $1.5 million bond to guarantee its performance, a routine requirement of every other mitigation bank seeking to do business in the state? The $1.5 million, the company argued, would be a cruel financial hardship in guaranteeing its performance.

The company had a point, of course. The Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank is a joint venture between the Carlyle Group and a Jacksonville company. The Carlyle Group, which has in the past included people like former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker on its board of directors, only has a lousy stinking $159 billion in assets, with investments around the globe.

How could they possibly come up with the $1.5 million bond without imploding the rest of the multinational corporation?

Highlands Ranch claimed the state should grant it 425 wetlands mitigation credits. But those nitpicking bureaucrats at DEP just rubbed salt in the wound. Since state law requires them to grant credits based on whether wetlands are actually maintained or would be restored, they would only approve 193 credits.

Would this heavy-handedness ever end?

There was only one way for these poor, defenseless victims at Highlands Ranch to resist this yoke of oppression. They hired a lobbyist — Edward "Ward" Blakely Jr., defender of democracy.

Ah, Kismet. Blakely and DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard once lived near each other in Jacksonville and Blakely served as the Jacksonville Port Authority lobbyist when Vinyard also served on the board. The two men have several other Jacksonville political connections.

Now, don't get all cynical here and begin to think that maybe some cronyism might be in play. Tut-tut. There's nothing to see here. Highlands Ranch was dealt a Bersok. They raised the ante with a Blakely. Top DEP officials insist nothing whatsoever untoward occurred simply because Highlands Ranch went out and hired a fancy-pants lobbyist — although no one can recall that ever happening before on a permit issue.

DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn assures us that politics has played no role in the permitting dispute. Whew! That's a relief. Why if Blakely and Vinyard found themselves in the same room, they averted their eyes, with nary an air-kiss passing between them. Instead it was Littlejohn who met with Blakely — a lot.

Eventually Vinyard — no doubt after many sleepless nights — was persuaded by Littlejohn, who was persuaded by Blakely, to regard the Highlands Ranch project as a revolutionary new pilot program to explore different and creative ways to apply mitigation bank permits.

And can't we all agree that when it comes to Florida's environmental laws, growth management issues and wetlands preservation, with the right Rolodex, the state is awash in creative solutions to vexing bureaucratic problems?

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