Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Department of protecting developers

Imagine if the Pentagon sent a survey to the Taliban asking them: "On a scale of 1 to 10 would you say our drone attacks have inflicted a financial hardship on your ability to conduct your business?" • Or consider if the Internal Revenue Service conducted a study inquiring of the nation's wealthiest individuals: "Should your tax rates be lower?" • Hmmmmm, just what do you suppose the responses might be? • The same might be said of factotums at Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. Those vigilant vanguards of our fair state's fragile ecosystem over the past several months have been asking the state's business concerns and local governments about whether the agency's rules and regulations have incurred undue costs.

It's merely a wacky guess, but do you have an inkling the answer might be: "Is the pope …?

On its website, DEP touts itself as an agency that "protects, conserves and manages Florida's natural resources and enforces the state's environmental laws." Unless that infringes on a checkbook?

Since September, DEP has been sending out probing questionnaires asking respondents in business and government to tabulate the costs associated with 15 regulatory permits designed to protect the environment. Isn't this a bit like asking the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price if he would prefer to call his own balls and strikes?

This was the inevitable consequence when Gov. Rick Scott appointed a shipping executive and industry lobbyist, Herschel Vinyard, whom no one would ever confuse with Rachel Carson as an environmental champion, to lead DEP into a regulatory swamp of cronyism.

It was probably only a matter of time, or about as long as it takes to fire up the grill for some delicious barbecue Florida panther, before Vinyard's DEP would begin inquiring of development interests: "Uh, we're not being too much of a bother, are we?"

Little wonder then that whoever is left at DEP to actually oversee responsible stewardship over Florida's environmental protection has been shunted aside, ignored and/or fired.

After all, last April Connie Bersok, then one of DEP's top experts in wetlands preservation, was put on leave after she objected to a permit for a Highlands Ranch development that would have adversely affected 300 acres of wetlands.

The project was initially approved by DEP officials and then eventually challenged in court, where a judge ruled the permit should be rejected. The land's owners dropped their appeal when a judge determined Bersok was the only credible witness in the matter.

DEP attorney Chris Byrd fared much worse. After Byrd successfully defended the environment with a court victory against a Marion County couple who had been found to have illegally filled in wetlands, instead of celebrating his legal prowess, the attorney told the Tampa Bay Times Craig Pittman: "As soon as the verdict came back, I had a sinking feeling" that he would get canned.

And Byrd was right. He was fired. Imagine — an environmental attorney doing his job guarding Florida wetlands, and by extension its water supply, against indifferent developers. Whoever heard of such a bizarre turn of events — in Tallahassee?

So it has become clear the only thing getting protected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are the keisters of the very development interests the agency is supposed to be regulating — but not too much.

Development is rampant in Florida. There should be a price and in some cases a hefty price to pay to assure that natural resources are protected and conserved. A DEP flack noted the surveys sent out to businesses and local governments were important in gathering data for any future proposed rule changes. And what do you suspect will come of this? Wetlands mitigation by Groupon?

It is noteworthy that environmental groups such as Audubon Florida and others weren't included in the DEP study. And for good reason. They're just a bunch of tree-hugging whiners anyway. Who cares what they think? Especially over at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

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