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Saving the Green Swamp

Two decades after Florida decided the Green Swamp was so valuable that it warranted special protection, the state is only beginning to deliver the message. Gov. Lawton Chiles and the State Cabinet helped Tuesday, telling one county government to give up its development fight.

The county, Polk, has 195,999 acres within the swamp and wants to let landowners there cash in on the encroaching development from Disney World and Orlando. But the state Department of Community Affairs is trying to draw a line, a critical line. It is saying that the Green Swamp cannot be converted to condominiums, and its fight is for development regulations that would limit new growth to one residential unit for every 20 acres.

Polk county commissioners, who have spent nearly two decades resisting the state's efforts to protect the swamp, want the state to delay even longer. But the Cabinet, which agreed to let DCA begin the rule development process, pushed ahead. Polk commissioner Marlene Young complained the state was creating a sense of urgency that doesn't exist, but she did offer one observation on which both sides can agree.

"I want to tell you that this is not merely a frivolous squabble between Polk County and the (state)," she said. "This is a very serious matter with enormous economic and policy implications."

Indeed it is. The Green Swamp is a lifeline for Central Florida. Its waters feed four major rivers, and it is the point of highest pressure for the Floridan Aquifer, which provides drinking water supplies for most of the northern half of the state. The swamp is a natural filter for the water that millions of Floridians drink, and its protection is, in a real sense, a "matter with enormous economic" implication.

Unfortunately, the state has waited entirely too long to recognize the implications. Major developments already have been approved, and thousands of septic tanks _ including ones built into mounds because the water table is so high _ now dot the swamp acreage. The local governments that were supposed to seek state approval for new developments sometimes never even notified the state.

In the past two years, DCA, through the help of late secretary Bill Sadowski and current secretary Linda Shelley, has helped to change that record. It has opened a field office and begun watching over the shoulders of local governments. It opposed the comprehensive plan not only for Polk but also for Lake County, and it has resisted individual development orders that could not be justified.

At the Cabinet meeting, Chiles said he would rather that Polk develop its own plans for protecting the swamp, which, of course, would be the preferable approach. But the Green Swamp is a state resource, a designated "Area of Critical State Concern," and county development officials have spent two decades resisting protection. To save the swamp, Florida will have to continue to act itself.