The developer who chairs the regional water board needs a crash course on the purpose of the agency he oversees. Contrary to what Carlos Beruff believes, the Southwest Florida Water Management District is not "a service industry" for big business. It's a regulatory agency that is supposed to protect the public water supply in the 16-county region. This is exactly why the federal government should not delegate its protection of local wetlands to the state.
Swiftmud's governing board complained this week that the federal government took too long to process development permits for wetland areas. Beruff said it makes sense for Swiftmud to take over the job. Making it faster for developers to get approval to destroy wetlands, he said, would ensure "we don't slow down the economic progress in the 16 counties that we say grace over." A prayer is exactly in order if this agency takes more control of carving up the area's natural resources.
Wetlands play a critical role in the growth, economy and vitality of a region. They are some of the most versatile habitats around, acting as recharge areas for the public drinking water supply, sponges that curb flooding and pollution and natural traps that feed wildlife and ecosystems. Destroying wetlands for a strip mall or parking lot should not be a trivial decision. The Clean Water Act assigns this job to the Army Corps of Engineers, which along with other federal partners ensures that panthers, manatees and other rare animals are protected on any wetlands project.
If anything, the corps already is too good to the building industry. It reviews about 3,200 permits in Florida annually and in the past year has denied only one, for a project in Pasco County. If developers have a problem with the corps, that's a federal matter. Petition the corps or Congress to set hard deadlines for the permits. And developers need to take on this campaign themselves. It's not Swiftmud's job to do the industry's bidding in Washington.
If Swiftmud has so much time, it can prepare for the next wave of development requests as the economy recovers. State and local agencies laid off hundreds of workers due to the recession, and one hard-hit operation was the planning department. These agencies need to get fully staffed, and governments need to adopt more sustainable development policies to prevent a repeat of the housing bubble. That's the sort of "service industry" Beruff should be talking about at Swiftmud: service to protect the public.