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Pasco weighs review of stormwater permits for exempted projects

New state rules that allow stormwater permits for some developments to be approved with little scrutiny have Pasco County officials wondering whether they should provide more oversight.

"If there's a problem 10 to 20 years from now, we'll end up being the one who's going to fix it," County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder told commissioners at a recent workshop.

In the past, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, reviewed all permit applications. Each of the state's five water management districts had its own rules. But this year, a law approved in 2012 kicked in and created statewide rules.

The new rules, drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, allow smaller projects, those that take up less than 10 acres and involve up to 2 acres of impervious surfaces such as asphalt, to be approved based on the engineer's word that it meets state standards.

The projects — small shopping centers or apartment buildings would fall in this category — also must not affect wetlands.

"They have to notify us within 30 days of construction that they meet all the criteria," said Michelle Hopkins, chief of the agency's environmental resource permit department.

Also, some projects that get construction permits no longer have to submit surveys that show the project that was built matched design drawings, unless there's a significant change.

Hopkins said the projects exempted are "low-risk activities we see a lot of or we feel don't trip the threshold for requiring a permit." She said so far there have been no problems with dishonest developers.

Larger projects, such as master planned unit developments or developments of regional impact, don't qualify for exemption.

The new rules streamline the process for developers and eliminate unnecessary regulations, said Pat Gassaway, an engineer and president of Heidt Design in Tampa.

"You don't need to have those when projects are smaller and less complex," he said.

But county officials, concerned that they'll be the ones held responsible, are considering stepping in where the state has stepped back.

"Pasco County deals with the daily fallout of engineering mistakes," said Amanda Boone, the county's development review manager. "We need to find a balance on the responsibilities of review."

Environmentalists said the county should tighten its review process.

"A lot of times smaller projects can fall through the cracks," said Tom Reese, a land-use and environmental attorney from St. Petersburg. County officials, he said, "have more boots on the ground" and are best equipped to handle those projects.

Some commissioners wondered whether the county has the money to handle the extra responsibilities.

"We just can't simply say we're taking on that responsibility without providing a source of revenue to do it," County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said.

He said development fees now only cover about half the county's processing costs.

County Administrator Michele Baker said the county would likely form a committee of stakeholders to study the matter and give recommendations.

Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.