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Giving ground on environment?

After nearly two decades of protecting one of Florida's most precious natural resources, the state is considering easing restrictions on home building and mining in the heart of the Green Swamp.

Growth-management advocates are horrified.

The vast Green Swamp in west-central Florida is one of just four places the Legislature has classified an "area of critical state concern." In other words, a top priority to protect.

Yet the Department of Community Affairs planner charged with overseeing the future of the Green Swamp is suggesting that the state not challenge Polk County's recent decision to allow more development in the swamp's fragile core.

Polk County's plan would allow builders to put a house on every 10 acres in the Green Swamp's most sensitive area. And the county has refused to adopt state prohibitions against mining the sensitive lands.

Such intense development in the Green Swamp could wipe out wildlife and endanger the drinking water supplies of Tampa Bay and Central Florida, environmentalists fear.

"I see this as a dramatic retreat in a state where environment is crucial to its survival," says John Ryan, a Central Florida environmentalist who monitors the Green Swamp. "Are we forgetting why we adopted growth management?"

The dangers to Florida's future reach beyond the Green Swamp, say growth-management champions. They see a broader pattern of retrenchment by Gov. Lawton Chiles' administration.

"From the Florida Keys to coastal barrier islands in the Florida Panhandle, there appears to be an overall pattern of simply backing off the growth-management laws," said Tom Pelham, the DCA secretary under former Gov. Bob Martinez. "We are seeing a consistent pattern of retreat _ even in the state's most critical environmentally sensitive areas that have always been top priorities."

Florida's landmark growth-management laws, approved in 1985, are designed to prevent the haphazard development that has paved over and polluted much of the state.

Unbridled growth has overburdened Florida's roads, schools, sewers, dumps, water supplies and natural resources.

The DCA, headed by Secretary Linda Shelley, oversees the growth-management act for the state. Concern about growth management's fate has gotten so intense within the agency that respected employees risk displeasing their boss by speaking out.

One critic is David Russ, a senior DCA lawyer and manager who has won major challenges to local government's comprehensive plans. Russ, honored as Public Service Employee of the Year in 1992 by former DCA Secretary Bill Sadowski, says he speaks for himself, not the agency:

"The environmental and growth-management laws were put together to recognize the horrific effect that thousands of individual decisions can have on the fragile ecosystem known as Florida," Russ says. "And now, step by step, they are being substantially weakened. And the people who will really suffer will be people like my children."

Is the Green Swamp endangered?

The Green Swamp's waters feed six rivers and act as a natural filter for the Floridan Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for millions of Floridians.

This unique preserve's half-million acres encompass parts of seven Central Florida counties. Its mosaic of swamps, rivers, uplands and forests are home to endangered Florida black bears, bobcats, wading birds and other threatened critters.

Parts of the swamp already are marked by scattershot development, timber operations and mining for sand and limerock.

Until now, the DCA has held firm in its request that Polk County allow no more than one home per 20 acres in the Green Swamp's core. Even that density ignores a scientific study that recommends no more than one unit per 40 acres and, in some places, no more than one unit per 100 acres, notes Richard Grosso, legal counsel for 1,000 Friends of Florida.

That group is challenging Polk and neighboring Lake County's Green Swamp plans. Lake County took the DCA's advice and agreed to limit home building to one per 20 acres and adopted the mining prohibition outlined in state guidelines.

Polk County's new plan for the Green Swamp calls for one home per 10 acres in the core area. The county says it will compromise to one home per 20 acres only if a bill proposed by state Rep. Dean Saunders, D-Lakeland, becomes law.

Saunders proposes a state land-buying program through a Green Swamp Land Authority. Owners could sell the state development rights to their property.

Although environmentalists see merit to parts of Saunders' bill, they doubt it will survive. It requires a minimum legislative appropriation of $10-million a year for the next three years.

"I'm intrigued with the idea, but you still may not get the areas protected that are really priorities to protect," said Eric Draper of the Nature Conservancy, who doesn't think the bill will pass.

DCA Secretary Shelley says she is lobbying legislators to approve Saunders' bill.

If the Saunders bill fails, said Green Swamp planner Mike McDaniel, "we would be stuck with one unit to 10 acres, and one to 10 might not be adequate to protect those resources."

One home on every 10 acres might not sound like a lot, preservationists say, but you have to consider the cumulative effect: two more cars each time a house is built in the swamp, additional electrical lines, road construction, septic tanks.

To put the most intense development proposed for the core of the Green Swamp in perspective, consider:

Agricultural lands in parts of Jacksonville are zoned one home per 100 acres. Parts of Citrus County near the Withlacoochee River and along the Gulf of Mexico are zoned one home per 40 acres. Even agricultural areas in populous Dade County are zoned one home per 20 acres.

The DCA has until the end of March to determine whether Polk County's Green Swamp plan complies with growth-management laws or violates them.

If the state abandons long-range planning in a region as significant as the Green Swamp, 1,000 Friends' Grosso says, what's the point in having a growth-management act?

"I think we are definitely seeing a retreat from the long-range planning the agency started out with 10 years ago," Grosso says. "It's gone well beyond the changes that were needed to make growth management a little fairer."

Should Shelley give him the chance to contest the proposed densities for the Green Swamp, the DCA's Russ is confident he could prove that even one home on 40 acres could harm the swamp's core.

"What happens if the people who want to preserve the Green Swamp are right and the people who don't are wrong?" Russ asks. "By the time the ill consequences show up, it will be too late for the Green Swamp."

Secretary Shelley says she hasn't made a decision on the Green Swamp. She generally supports planner McDaniel's view.

"Here's what it will probably come down to with me," Shelley says. "Will the scientific evidence support protection of the resource at that density or will it not? Because if we disagree with Polk County, that will be our burden of providing that their densities do not support the uses."

And as for mining in the Green Swamp?

Environmentalists wonder why the DCA is backing off longstanding planning polices that don't allow mining in sensitive areas.

Shelley says she plans to let other agencies _ the Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of State Mines and the water management districts _ oversee mining.

More dangerous signs

The DCA's change of strategy for the Green Swamp signals a major shift away from long-range planning, growth watchdogs say.

They point to several other hot spots around the state where the DCA appears to be backpedaling. The trend, they fear, began with the controversial St. Lucie County decision approved by the governor and Cabinet late last year.

The governor and Cabinet found that a housing plan for 164 rural acres violates growth-management laws, but they didn't impose sanctions. The result: St. Lucie was allowed to proceed with the development.

During a November Cabinet meeting, Gov. Lawton Chiles publicly scolded Shelley and warned her not to "micro-manage" local government planning decisions. Since then, the DCA has backed off several planning challenges on local plan amendments that are smaller than the St. Lucie case.

"What's going on here is that St. Lucie is having a chilling effect on how the department treats other cases," Grosso says.

Other trouble spots include:

Bay County: The DCA is giving Bay County a second chance to file an amendment to its comprehensive plan. The amendment would increase the zoning of 1.36 acres on St. Andrews Island, a coastal barrier island, from five units per acre to 15 per acre to permit a high-rise condominium. The property, located in the coastal high hazard area, is adjacent to St. Andrews State Park, habitat for endangered beach mice and a nesting site for endangered sea turtles.

The other amendment would change 7{ acres on Fanning Bayou, which funnels into St. Andrews Bay, from residential to industrial to permit a boat repair business that restarted after a six-year absence. Neighbors are challenging the amendment. The DCA plans to drop its opposition to the amendment.

Indian River County: Shortly before a legal challenge, the DCA abandoned opposition to a plan amendment that will change 15 acres in Indian River County from residential to industrial and commercial, and encourage urban sprawl. Half of the site contains pristine hardwood scrub.

Key West: The DCA isn't going to challenge additions to residences that may violate the Key's growth caps. Instead of trying to police the additions, some of which are being used illegally to add more guest house space, Shelley has asked Monroe County to enforce its growth restrictions.

Big Pine Key: The DCA has tentatively agreed to allow Monroe County's School Board to open an elementary school on Big Pine Key near the Key Deer national refuge. Shelley likes the proposal better than a previous Big Pine Key site that endangered the Key deer.

What's going on?

"I think someone is playing Santa Claus in a election year," says former DCA Secretary Pelham.

By dodging legal challenges to the local plan amendments, Shelley also avoids taking the controversies to the governor and Cabinet.

Shelley insists there is no retrenchment.

"Frankly, I would have a concern about why the state of Florida, Department of Community Affairs would be at this level of debate with a local government," Shelley said of the smaller cases in Bay and Indian River counties.

Nor, she says, has she issued edicts to her planning and legal staffs as a result of the St. Lucie County case.

In the aftermath of St. Lucie County, this much is clear: The DCA is trying to pick its fights better.

"If they can't justify low densities in a case like the Green Swamp, I can't see how they're going to justify them anywhere else," Grosso says of the DCA. "That's a pretty darn important ecosystem. . . .

"My fear is that things are much worse than we even know about."

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