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Swiftmud wants to speed up filling of wetlands by taking over federal permits

Swiftmud chief Carlos Beruff says the corps of engineers is plodding.
Published May 21, 2014

The Southwest Florida Water Management District wants to make it faster for developers to get permits to destroy wetlands, the district's governing board members said Tuesday.

The board, commonly known as Swiftmud, which currently hands out most state permits for filling wetlands in the 16-county region around Tampa Bay, said it wants to take over some or all of the federal permitting process, too.

The reason: The board members think the federal permits are approved too slowly. Speeding everything up would better serve the developers who need permits, they contended.

"If it truly is our intention to be a service industry, or bureaucracy, then we should try to take on as much of that jurisdiction as we can," Swiftmud chairman Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County developer, said.

It makes sense for Swiftmud to take over issuing federal permits on wetlands, Beruff said, "so we don't slow down the economic progress in the 16 counties that we say grace over."

Under the Clean Water Act, the federal agency in charge of protecting wetlands is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act 40 years ago, it intended that getting permits for destroying wetlands should be difficult.

"The bottom line was to try to stem what the scientific evidence of the day showed was a problem: the dramatic reduction in wetlands habitat around the nation," said Jim Range, who helped write the law as chief counsel for then-Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

Yet as of a decade ago, the corps approved more permits to destroy wetlands in Florida than any other state, and allowed a higher percentage of destruction in Florida than nationally, a 2005 Times analysis found.

In Florida, the corps is reviewing about 3,200 permits a year, according to Tori K. White, deputy chief of the corps' regulatory division in Jacksonville. In the past year, White said, she has denied just one permit — the one for SunWest Harbourtowne, the upscale coastal resort proposed for northwest Pasco County.

According to Beruff, though, the corps takes too long to say yes. State wetland permit applications must be approved or denied within 60 days of being deemed complete or they are automatically approved.

There's no law setting a limit on how long the corps can take with a permit, he noted, "so we could issue a (permit) and then the developer sits there trying to get a corps of engineers permit for months."

Board member Todd Pressman suggested contacting Florida's congressional delegation to push through a law limiting the corps' time to deliberate on wetland permits. White says the federal Office of Management and Budget has set guidelines for the corps that call for reaching a decision on at least half of all individual permits within 120 days. Right now the Florida office is "about 38 percent."

White said her staffers have negotiated with state agencies in the past over the corps' giving up its role in permitting smaller wetlands projects — say 3 acres or less. But they always ran into the same problem that blocked such a transfer: the Endangered Species Act, which requires that other federal agencies be consulted to ensure that panthers, manatees and other rare animals are protected before wetlands permits are issued.

Also irritating the Swiftmud board members is that corps officials have started checking the state agency's website. Not every development project needs both state and federal wetland permits. In the past, Swiftmud's staff would send to the corps any permits the staff thought might need both. But ever since Swiftmud began posting its permit applications online, corps officials have been reading those postings and picking the ones they believe require federal permits.

The corps and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are already on the hot seat with politicians both in Florida and nationally because they recently proposed new rules on which wetlands are covered by the Clean Water Act. Although the proposed rule was designed to clarify a confusing 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the justices split three ways, it has been portrayed by some as a power grab by overzealous bureaucrats.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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