Editorial: Deck stacked for developers

Published March 29, 2013

There is a reason everyone kept quiet about the federal government handing the state the power to grant development permits that could hurt Florida panthers, gopher tortoises and other endangered species. It's letting the fox guard the henhouse, and it's indefensible.

It turns out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year quietly handed its authority to grant those permits to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported Friday, there were no public hearings and no big public announcement of this unique giveaway. No wonder.

The state wildlife commission is not exactly aggressive in protecting wildlife from development. Environmental groups say between 2005 and 2007, the commission rarely commented about proposed developments and had little to say when it did respond. Developers like the switch because they complain the federal wildlife service takes too long to issue permits. They also like a stacked deck.

The state wildlife commission's seven members includes two developers, a paving contractor, a land-use attorney, a cattle rancher, a lobbyist and a fellow at a libertarian think tank. Now they are deciding whether to issue permits for developments that could result in injury or death of an endangered species? That hardly seems like a fair fight, even for a Florida panther.

There is a reason the federal government should have the authority to grant these sorts of permits and set nutrient limits to fight water pollution, a responsibility that Washington also has handed back to Florida. States too often can't be trusted to stand up to parochial powerbrokers such as developers and campaign contributors. Florida history is rich with examples of taking the short-term financial profit over the long-term health of the environment.

The transfer of permitting power involving endangered species came to light last week as two environmental groups signaled they intend to file a lawsuit. They argue states are not intended to have the authority and that the switch violates the federal Endangered Species Act. It certainly violates the public trust. And if it is such a good idea, why weren't Floridians invited to share their views about it first?