The head of the federal agency that issues wetland permits in Florida is touring the state this month, with a stop in Tampa this week.
David Hobbie took charge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' regulatory office in Jacksonville - the largest and busiest regulatory office in the country - six months ago.
The meetings, which will also be held in Fort Lauderdale, Panama City and Jacksonville, are open to anyone who is interested in wetlands, but "this is primarily for the people who deal with us on a regulatory basis," said corps spokesman Barry Vorse.
Hobbie said his goal "is to learn from those we serve, about how we can serve them better."
The corps has been in charge of protecting the nation's wetlands since the passage of what became known as the Clean Water Act in 1972. It issues more permits for wetland destruction in Florida than in any other state, and seldom rejects an application.
A St. Petersburg Times review of corps records found that from 1999 to 2003, the corps approved 12,000 permits for destroying wetlands and denied just one. Federal policy since 1990 has called for no net loss of the nation's wetlands. A Times analysis of satellite imagery for the state found that Florida lost about 84,000 acres of wetlands to development between 1990 and 2003.
Although the corps seldom says no, its large volume of permit applications means it can take months or even years to say yes, irritating builders and developers.
In May, two months after Hobbie took over the Jacksonville office, he approved a permit for the paving of 56 acres of wetlands near the headwaters of the Hillsborough River, a major source of drinking water for Hillsborough County.
A day later he approved a permit for a controversial golf-course development that will wipe out more than 650 acres of wetlands in the western Everglades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized the proposed Mirasol project in Collier County, citing concerns over water pollution and the loss of wildlife habitat.
In an interview then, Hobbie acknowledged a possible conflict between approving wetlands destruction in the Everglades while the corps is spending billions of dollars to restore them.
"All we do," he said then, "is enforce the rules and regulations given to us by Congress."
IF YOU GO
The "Meet the Chief" meeting wil begin at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Princess Palm Drive, in the Citibank Center office park off Interstate 75 in Tampa.