Groups differ on wetlands' condition


Published: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 11:37 p.m.

The fight's a familiar one for Dwight Adams.

Facts

AT A GLANCE

Just 30 acres of wetlands were disturbed by development in the past three years.
Of those, nearly half were replaced on-site or in other parts of the watershed.

"The wetlands issue has been one that's been ongoing in Florida for 150 years," said Adams, a Sierra Club member since 1962 and a vocal force behind grassroots efforts to protect Alachua County wetlands.

When Adams joins county environmental experts, land planners and conservationists today for the latest round of Comprehensive Plan mediation hearings, discussions are sure to be heated, the debates long. But as the issue gains steam in county government circles, sparking an intense county-conservationist-developer battle that shows no signs of abating, a vexing question has emerged: Are Alachua County wetlands even sick?

The answer may be more polarizing than the debate itself.

"Alachua County is in pretty good shape," said Glenn Lowe, an environmental resource management division director for the St. Johns River Water Management District, which monitors wetland areas in much of the eastern part of the county.

A recent survey of the county's 120,000 acres of wetlands and lakes under St. Johns jurisdiction found that three years of development and water use had had minimal impact on area waterways, Lowe said.

In Alachua County, "there have been no significant losses that can be discerned," he said.

A similar review of the county's northwestern wetlands by the Suwannee River Water Management District concurred with the St. Johns findings. Combined, both districts report that just 30 acres of wetlands were disturbed by development in the past three years. Of those, nearly half were replaced on-site or in other parts of the watershed.

For water management officials, where wetland acres have disappeared at staggering rates in other parts of the state, Alachua County's numbers are reassuring.

But for those like Adams, committed to the long-term health of North Central Florida's natural resources, the numbers are anything but.

"You could say we are nickel and diming the wetlands away to nothing," he said.

Size matters

A number of issues have delayed progress of the county's long-term growth strategy, the so-called Comprehensive Plan. Language on rural clustering has been challenged by local developers, and extension of the county's urban service boundary has been questioned by those worried building in the county may soon outpace demand.

But none has been more divisive than the debate over wetlands.

During a recent mediation hearing last month, county water experts and local conservationists sparred over the the size and type of wetlands in need of protection and how far new developments must be set back from surface waterways.

For some conservationists, size matters.

"We feel very strongly about protecting these small, isolated wetlands," said Kathy Cantwell, chairwoman of the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club. "We are losing them repeatedly."

Cantwell and Adams have petitioned the county to maintain protections for wetlands less than one-quarter acre in size and increase the size of development setbacks for wetlands with listed species.

Currently, all Alachua County wetlands are regulated regardless of size. Buffers for ordinary wetlands and surface waters are set at 75 feet; those with documented threatened species are set at 300 feet.

But local developers have challenged the larger buffers and minimum acreage requirements. Now, county officials have proposed a 150-feet compromise, as well as relaxing development restrictions for small, low-quality wetlands.

Some conservationists have said that all wetlands should be protected, regardless of size and health and buffers must be increased, not shrunk.

County environmental experts, however, disagree.

"At some point, you become a puddle with almost no contribution," said Michael Drummond, a senior environmental planner with the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. "The $64,000 question, then, is at what point does wetland become a puddle?"

Mounting challenges

While county wetlands issues have been in the news in recent weeks, historically much of the debate has occurred at the city level.

In 2001, after discussions between city and University of Florida environmental experts, the city's charter was amended to permit off-site restoration of wetlands, a "watershed approach" to offset destroyed wetlands by building artificial ones, enhancing existing ones or conserving others off site.

But that charter amendment was eventually challenged by environmentalists, a delay that has frustrated many wetland and water-use experts.

The next challenge to the charter came in November, when a group of Gainesville homeowners collected signatures in support of a petition to challenge the city's charter, a move the group said would provide better protections for area wetlands and surface waters.

The petition, which will likely appear on Gainesville's April 8 election ballot, seeks to protect wetlands from "from any alteration" by maintaining buffers around all city surface waters.

City and county officials fear the petition may damage land planners' ability to protect wetlands already slated for restoration.

"The first impression is that this will be important for protecting wetlands," said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. "But the way it is written, there is a concern that it may limit us from protecting wetlands."

Tom Crisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands of the University of Florida, said that many conservationists may mean well but often are misguided in their approach.

"We are trying to recognize reality," Crisman said. "The reality is that there will be some development. But within that development, how do we get the best return for society on an environmental front?"

Earlier this month for example, the federal government proposed relaxing protections for so-called isolated wetlands, a change many environmentalists fear could lead to the destruction of more than 20 million acres of surface waters nationwide.

In Florida, the move could leave isolated wetlands in parts of Florida's Panhandle unregulated by any government agency. Since President Bush's order, state wetlands ecologists have renewed calls for expanded oversight, but with a $3 million estimated price tag, legislative leaders say the expansion is unlikely in a tight budget year.

"To add a new program that requires more oversight will be tough," state Sen. Charlie Clary, R-Destin, told The Associated Press.

For Alachua County and Gainesville, the federal rule changes will mean little for area wetlands, environmental officials say.

But for intervenors in today's growth-plan mediation, the federal government's moves should serve as a warning that without a proactive approach to surface water protection, wetlands are likely to disappear, even here.

"These local governments better get their own regulations into place," the Sierra Club's Adams said.

With national protections for wetlands appearing to diminish, he said, "it is all the more necessary to have local regulations where state and federal ones have failed."

Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or brunog@gvillesun.com.

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