1. News

Judge upholds suspended wetlands expert, blasts DEP for permitting controversial project

Highlands Ranch’s website features a photo of wetlands. The problem, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s top wetlands expert, is that much of the land isn’t wet.
Published Apr. 13, 2013

A judge has ruled that the state Department of Environmental Protection was wrong to ignore its top wetlands expert and issue a permit for a controversial project that she had warned would damage the environment.

The ruling shows "good science is being protected," said Tom Reese, the St. Petersburg attorney for the Florida Wildlife Federation, which challenged the permit.

The permit the DEP issued would have resulted in the loss of 300 acres of wetlands, considered vital to soaking up floodwaters and recharging the aquifer, he said.

The 83-page ruling concerns a permit the DEP issued for the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank in Clay County, a project so controversial it led to the suspension of the DEP's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok.

Highlands Ranch's plans call for turning a North Florida pine plantation into a business that attempts to make up for wetlands that are wiped out by new roads and development. At stake: millions of dollars in wetland credits that can be sold to government and developers.

The problem, according to a memo last year from Bersok, was that the owners wanted the DEP to give them lots of wetland credits for land that isn't wet, using a method that no one else used.

After being told by Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn to ignore the rules she had followed on other permits, Bersok wrote, "I hereby state my objection to the intended agency action and refusal to recommend this permit for issuance."

Bersok was put on leave and under the microscope. Documents from the investigation that followed show her bosses were worried she was blabbing to reporters and environmental activists about the permit. She testified under oath that she was not.

Although Bersok was reinstated, she was taken off the Highlands Ranch permit review. DEP officials approved the permit the way the owner wanted. During the environmental group's legal challenge, Bersok's testimony about what happened offered "the most credible and reliable application of reasonable scientific judgment," the judge ruled.

"Connie is a good scientist," Reese said. "She would not succumb to political pressure."

The judge noted that no one at DEP could explain how they came up with the numbers used in the permit and blasted Littlejohn and the DEP for creating a new approach "developed by the department and Highlands Ranch, without opportunity for public participation or input."

DEP officials said they could not comment on the case while Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. is still considering what to do about it. An attorney for Highlands Ranch did not respond to a request for comment.

Highlands Ranch is a wetlands mitigation bank. It's supposed to work like this: A would-be banker buys pasture or forest that used to be a swamp and restores the wetlands. Regulators calculate how many wetland credits the banker has earned. The banker can sell those credits to customers who need to make up for filling in a swamp, usually for development.

The Highlands Ranch bank was created in 2008 when a politically influential private equity firm named the Carlyle Group formed a joint venture with a Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions. They spent $15 million buying a 1,575-acre pine plantation next to Jennings State Forest.

Although records show Highlands Ranch's owners planned to do little to restore wetlands on the plantation, its owners sought 688 credits from the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The district approved only 193 credits, a difference worth millions in a market where credits have sold for up to $100,000 each. Highlands Ranch filed a legal challenge and lost. It attempted to get the Legislature to change the rules. That failed too.

So Highlands Ranch hired a lobbyist from Jacksonville named Ward Blakely who had previously worked with Vinyard. Then Littlejohn, an engineering consultant who had recently been hired by Vinyard, issued a memo ordering a change in the way credits were calculated. The first draft, Littlejohn said, was written for him by the attorney for Highlands Ranch.

The company then applied for a new permit from DEP that would supersede the one from the water district and would be worth 425 credits. But Bersok — who helped write the standards the state uses for credits — kept raising questions that Blakely complained were "punitive."

She calculated Highlands Ranch was due only 177 credits, so Littlejohn told Bersok to try a new approach suggested by Highland Ranch's consultant. This time she came up with 280 credits, still short of what the owners wanted.

The permit that Bersok's bosses issued last August gave Highlands Ranch the 425 credits its owners had sought. It also waived the requirement that they show they are financially capable of building what they promised.

Both of those decisions were wrong, according to Judge E. Gary Early of the state Division of Administrative Hearings. The company should not have been allowed to duck its financial responsibilities and the project should get no more than the 280 credits Bersok came up with.

Craig Pittman can be reached at


  1. In this file photo, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is announcing arrests in a sting operation that targeted unlicensed contractors. [Times (2018)]
    Monday morning, Sheriff Chad Chronister will announce the results.
  2. Buccaneers fan Heather Chase, of Tampa, is surrounded by Saints fans during the first quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Bucs saw a larger crowd Sunday for their 34-17 loss to New Orleans Saints, but largely because of Saints fans.
  3. The man, 57, died at the scene.
  4. Hillsborough County deputies are seeking a man and woman suspected of using a stolen credit card. They are shown here in screenshots taken from surveillance video at a Walmart in Seffner, one of six stores where the credit card was used. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
    Surveillance video shows two people leaving a Walmart in Seffner with a shopping cart full of merchandise.
  5. Sally Carlson of Seminole talks to her newly adopted 5-year-old miniature poodle held by Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center volunteer Mary Claire Streator. Potential owners browsed some of the 300 puppies that were put up for adoption Sunday in the gymnasium at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The designer-breed dogs had been rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa, where they were found sick and malnourished. Prospective owners were chosen out of thousands who applied during a lottery-type system and were able pick out a dog. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The animals were found in deplorable conditions at a grooming business in September. Their new owners had 15 minutes to make a selection.
  6. People hug each other during a vigil Thursday after a 16-year-old student shot several classmates then himself in the quad area of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. Another vigil is planned for Sunday evening. HANS GUTKNECHT  |  AP
    The two students were killed Thursday after a 16-year-old began shooting randomly at Saugus High School.
  7. Pasco County community news TMCCARTY80  |  Tara McCarty
    News and notes from Pasco County
  8. Hernando County community news Tara McCarty
    That and other news from Hernando County
  9. FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2019, file photo, Donald Trump Jr. speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) JOHN MINCHILLO  |  AP
    University of Florida student body president Michael Murphy received a resolution for his impeachment Tuesday. Then the state’s Republican Party started an online petition and fundraiser.
  10. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The driver faces charges of driving under the influence and refusal to submit to testing.