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A bridge with six lives

Florida's top environmental agency has had six chances to reject a proposed Panhandle bridge that would betray water protection laws, but it has deferred all six times.

Why?

Though biologists with the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) have repeatedly criticized the bridge plans and the latest revision appears to backtrack on earlier commitments about stormwater and sewage treatment, DER Secretary Virginia Wetherell extended the deadline yet again. The department gave the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority another two months to spend more public money and waste more regulatory time on a project that so directly contradicts state coastal and water protection policies it would erect a road through prairie lands the public bought to preserve. The stated reason: The would-be bridge builders asked.

As a policy for regulatory permitting, the just-ask-and-we'll-delay approach is a decidedly curious one. Charles Lee, senior vice president with the Florida Audubon Society, makes the point well in a letter to Wetherell: "During the past legislative session, we achieved much progress toward "permit streamlining.' One of the things that you and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay consistently said was that a major goal of streamlining was to provide prompt answers to permit applications _ whether that answer was yes or no."

In fact, the main proponent for prompt regulatory answers has been the development industry. In the Santa Rosa bridge case, though, the developer is using delay tactics in reverse _ to try to wear down the opposition. To developers, it seems, streamlining is not necessarily about reducing the time to get an answer; it is about making certain the answer, whenever it is delivered, is "yes."

For DER to deliver a "yes" to the Santa Rosa bridge project at this point would be indefensible. The bridge would require road construction through wetland prairies, promote real estate development on a sensitive coastal peninsula and link one undeveloped peninsula with another sparsely populated one. It would be built in highly protected shellfish waters, and it makes no provision for control of dirty stormwater or future septic tanks. Also, a May 26 DER memorandum notes the bridge authority is now trying to write off its stormwater and septic tank pollution problems by agreeing to conduct studies; it also questions whether the authority has the money to provide any meaningful environmental protection at all.

The Santa Rosa bridge project, though, already has crossed an unusual number of legislative and regulatory barriers, and its continued survival only draws more attention to the political presence of House Speaker Bo Johnson. Johnson, as a state representative, filed the bill in 1984 to create the bridge authority. As House speaker, he has become its most influential ally.

Johnson, who has been quick to deflect environmental and economic criticisms of the project, is also a leading legislative advocate of environmental streamlining. If he truly wants to understand what is ailing the regulatory process in Florida, he ought to look at the project that has come to be nicknamed after him. Bo's Bridge has had six regulatory lives, and the developer keeps asking for more.

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