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WETLANDS PROPOSAL OPENS DOOR TO TROUBLE

Rick Garrity, Hillsborough's environmental chief, has proposed a risky compromise in an attempt to save the county's wetlands protection program. He would preserve rules that guard against drought, pollution and flooding, but would open the door for developers and the politicians whose campaigns they fund to manipulate the office behind the scenes. This arrangement is better than no program at all, but it is a loaded gun in the hands of his bosses. We are at this point, after all, because Commissioners Brian Blair, Kevin White, Ken Hagan and Jim Norman want it easier for developers to destroy sensitive and valuable habitat.

It is tempting to wish that Garrity force an up-or-down vote for the program, which would make the gimme to developers an issue in the next election. But such political indulgence would be reckless for this growing county. His plan keeps intact one of the program's two major distinctions. Hillsborough, unlike the state of Florida, protects wetlands of a half acre or less. That is critical for controlling flood waters and pollution in developed areas. He also would clarify and speed the permitting process for developers and property owners. Those changes are reasonable and address legitimate concerns about the program's bureaucracy and cost.

The biggest change is that the county would relax its rule that wetlands can be destroyed only as a last resort. Garrity's office would be more open to "mitigation," under which wetlands destroyed may be replaced elsewhere. He also would classify wetlands by "ecological value," which would in part determine whether they could be destroyed. This discretion, in the right hands, could reasonably marry science and judgment. But coming as a counter-offer to killing the program outright, it invites the same political meddling down the road as what inspired it in the first place.

At best, what emerges from the plan is a leaner, not meaner, agency, where fewer lands are protected, more is demanded from fewer people and in shorter periods of time and where developers have a role in policymaking. That amounts to a huge environmental gamble, one driven entirely by this foursome's fealty to the development industry. The commission, which will discuss the matter Thursday, sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, should realize the public sees the motivations at play and the risks this course, especially with this board, poses to our quality of life.

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