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ANGRY CROWD LIKES WETLANDS

County commissioners who want to kill the wetlands division sit mainly in silence.

They came wearing green and seeing red.

An overflow crowd filled the commission chambers at Hillsborough County Center on Thursday to blast the board's tentative vote to eliminate its Environmental Protection Commission's wetlands protection program.

They wore green T-shirts that read: "Wetlands - Save 'Em Don't Pave 'Em." They accused commissioners of being in the pocket of developers and expressed their shame in the four commissioners who voted in favor of the scuttling.

They placed a tip jar on the lectern, with speaker after speaker depositing 60 cents - the cost, they said, of the wetlands program per resident. And they voiced outrage at the 45 minutes set aside for public comment - one minute per speaker.

"You're a mockery," said Roger Stewart, former head of the EPC, as his time expired. "If you're time is so valuable, get the hell out and do something else."

The crowd dispersed not knowing the fate of the wetlands office. That decision, plus another public hearing, is scheduled for Aug. 16.

The audience was left to interpret the general silence of the commissioners they've dubbed the "gang of four" - Republicans Brian Blair, Jim Norman and Ken Hagan, and Democrat Kevin White.

The three other commissioners -Republicans Rose Ferlita, Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe - did most of the speaking from the dais, voicing support for what the EPC dubs a "hybrid plan" to streamline its $2.2-million wetlands permitting program.

That plan, presented by current agency executive director Richard Garrity, seeks to shave $367,859 in costs from the wetlands division. It allows for faster review of permit requests, speeded by clearer rules and greater coordination with other agencies that regulate wetlands development.

The County Commission serves as the board of directors for the EPC, the county's main environmental regulator.

In a preliminary vote, the EPC board voted 4-3 last month to kill the wetlands division, saying it duplicates the work of other agencies. The majority said the county can no longer afford the division, given budget cuts being mandated by the state.

During that meeting, Garrity was given just three minutes to explain his salvage proposal. Jadell Kerr, the wetlands chief, resigned a few weeks later.

Those actions appear to have awakened Hillsborough's seemingly moribund environmental community.

"I'm very much ashamed to call myself a Republican, because you three should know better," said Janet Hiltz of Citrus Park, referring to the Republicans who have voted to ax wetlands protection.

"We're getting the same vibrations we got in the 1980s, when three commissioners were taken away in handcuffs" for selling land-use votes, said Cam Oberting, a longtime activist and president of the Taylor Road Civic Association.

Some speakers directed their scorn at Blair, who serves as EPC chairman. A recent St. Petersburg Times investigation documented his own efforts as a commissioner to direct the county staff to clean up a private lake behind his house, a lake he says county workers fouled.

"We should not play politics with Mother Nature," said Kevin Beckner, a financial planner who has filed paperwork to run against Blair in 2008.

Blair dismissed the Times story as a lie and suggested his hecklers take their tip jar down Kennedy Boulevard to help feed the homeless.

Former Commissioners Chris Hart and Jim Selvey spoke in favor of the hybrid proposal. They join former Commissioners Jan Platt and Ronda Storms, who have urged commissioners not to do away with locally controlled wetlands protections that are more stringent than those of state and federal regulators.

A small number of speakers spoke in favor of streamlining or doing away with the wetlands division. They included a few farmers who said that agency regulations can be hard and costly to navigate, and unfairly tough for an industry that helps keep the county green.

They also included Frank Matthews, a Tallahassee lawyer with the firm Hopping, Green & Sams, who acknowledged he was representing local developer Stephen Dibbs, who has led a one-man crusade to shutter the Hillsborough's wetlands program. Matthews argued that the local regulations are indeed redundant with other government rules, even those protecting smaller wetlands.

"Do not be misled into taking action to fill a void that does not exist," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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