To whose benefit is it that our dwindling number of wetlands continue to be squandered? To whose benefit is it that wetlands be exchanged for retention ponds? Developer Carlos Beruff, who sits on the board of SWFWMD, says, "Retention ponds aren't wetlands, but they are very close." Yes Mr. Beruff, like ponies are close to unicorns; as if to say, in illusion only.
Last Thursday afternoon in the Manatee Room on the fourth floor of the administrative building, County Attorney Bill Clague hosted a Planning Task Force Meeting. The subject: The Wetland changes to Section 719 of the Land Development Code (LDC).
Clague said, "The purpose to bringing it forward here was simply to give people another opportunity if they have questions or comments, to bring it up in this forum, and we'll do the best we can to address the technical details of how things work."
Better put, it was a crash course in the pseudosciences.
Two days prior, in the BOCC chambers, commissioners hosted the first of two required public meetings on the requested changes to the LDC. Over a dozen citizens and organization leaders spoke in opposition to any further leniency to the wetland section of the code. These changes were being pushed through the procedures at record speed, always a clear sign to citizens that they should watch closely and demand prudence.
Back on March 8, Clague attended a BOCC land use meeting where the request to advertise the ordinance changes appeared on the consent agenda without any of the supporting documents necessary to brief commissioners.
If it wasn't for Commissioners Gallen and DiSabatino pulling the wetland item for discussion, a major revision regarding one of the most sensitive issues (our water) to go before the BOCC, would have been on its way to a done deal with little to no public scrutiny.
The request for the LDC change had cui bono (who benefits) written all over it, along with all of the classic signs of "just get it done" special-interest politics, including Clague's legal MO: repeatedly telling the board, "I advise you (the commission) to not drag your heels, and get this done," as many times as necessary until commissioners feel it is more of a legal issue than one of preserving a viable water future for generations to come.
But who are the winners and losers of such policies? Certainly all animals in the wild will suffer. In and around wetlands is where most Florida species live, eat, drink, lay their eggs, maintain their nest and seek refuge from the human race.
Unquestionably human beings will feel pain from any further loss of wetlands. If all of the development that has been approved -- but not yet built -- were to be completed, we would more than double the current population of Manatee County, and our water use.
We are currently nearing "dangerously low" conditions with our water supply. By the year 2030, studies show we will not have enough reserve to adequately meet projected demand of what's needed for public consumption, without substituting via costly alternatives like desalinization.
History will attest that many functional wetlands were mitigated away, replaced with retention ponds five times their size, but only a tiny fraction of the functional ability. Ground water is our purest, cheapest and most reliable source of water. Wetlands recharge the aquifer, retention ponds do not.
Surrounding counties will see their ground water drop as aquifer recharge is reduced and use is increased. History has proven, heavy ground water pumping in mining and industrial agriculture regions lead to a drop in aquifer levels for as much as 20 feet. Sarasota is currently purchasing water from Manatee County, and when reserves shrink, supply becomes more of an issue -- those sales will stop as well as the revenue from them.
That will force Sarasota County to seek permits to pump additional water from the aquifer, which will likely draw our ground water down even further, as aquifers tend not to respect county line borders. Manatee County is already preparing for alternative water sources; and any alternative could double or even triple the current cost.
The county's reputation will be ruined, as a leader in ecologically balanced, science-driven policies that once governed our county's environmental issues; not the anything goes for the right price brand of environmental management we are currently experiencing. Not one of the commissioners who sits on the BOCC was there when the policies that earned Manatee County's reputation for being respectful to the environment were made. Some commissioners will go on-and-on taking credit for that history, because there is still a glimmer of natural environment left, but that's in spite of the current BOCC, not because of them.
Clearly Pat Neal of Neal Homes and Carlos Beruff of Medallion Homes will benefit, and so will attorney Hugh McGuire, just to mention a few. McGuire has worked with both Neal and Beruff on SMART Connect, and all are members of the North County Partnership. It takes a lot to get them out of their woodwork, but they have been present through every step in the procedures of this issue because the changes mean big money for bid development.
In the last six months, McGuire has sought approval for three separate developments to be built in Manatee, totaling well over one thousand homes. In fact, in the the two years covering the local governments, I do not remember a McGuire-represented applicant being denied anything.
McGuire also represents Mosaic, and has had three different phosphate mines approved, which use 70 million gallons a day (MGD) of aquifer water. Mosaic claims to "reuse 90 percent of their water," but it doesn't matter how many times someone reuses the water they pump, the pivotal factor is: THEY PUMP 70 MILLION GALLONS PER DAY! In another local government gig, McGuire also came up on the winning side of County Administrator Ed Hunzeker's new contract, a deal that absolutely cost Manatee residents far more than was announced. It's hard to keep track of whose side McGuire is on from one meeting to the next, but it's a safe bet that whichever one it is will come out smelling like roses.
Carlos Beruff, President of Medallion Homes, sits on the SWFWMD Board (as well as the boards of the Airport Authority and SCF). This allows him to make comments like the ones he made at the Task Force meeting in a way that makes it unclear whether the mega developer or the SWFWMD guy is doing the talking. But to completely address the tactics and ambitions of the small number of individuals who benefit from many of the actions that go before the BOCC would take another lengthy article.
This rush to judgment, this push to codify the wetland codes, seem more about legal strategy and market share than what is best for the people of this county. I can only suggest the citizens of this county get involved if for no other reason than the future they wish to leave their children and grandchildren. Taxpayers need to demand that decisions are made on sound scientific information rather than store-bought opinions.
The bodies behind the dais cost taxpayers well over a million dollars annually. Make sure you get what you are paying for, that their decisions secure your and your neighbor's future, not a grandiose nest-egg for themselves.
On May 7, this issue will go before the BOCC for a vote. The powers that be are pulling out their fast-track team to get this through. You can help try and secure a clean water future by showing-up, and if you don't feel like the commissioners support your best interest, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next election to do something about that.
John Rehill covers local government and environmental issues for The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.