BRADENTON -- At Tuesday's BOCC meeting, spectators learned about some of the value wetlands play in our everyday way of life, by both environmentally concerned citizens and the special interest heavy hitters that ringmaster the process of local government. For citizens, wetlands are the last frontier to protect, if water is to remain safe and available. For developers and mining interests, wetlands remain something very different: an obstacle to more profits. In Manatee County, it's not hard to guess which side has the most leverage.
Manatee County Attorney Bill Clague stands with his hand on the wetland faucet. He says his new wetland ordinance changes are neither hot nor cold, neither pro nor con. According to Clague, he is just trying to satisfy everybody; except of course, those who appeal to a comprehensive scientific approach to what many think is the last canary in the coal mine: our wetlands.
Clague said there really aren't any changes to the Comp Plan, saying "We have been operating outside of its intent since 2004." Citizens say, that has been the problem. Many feel that Manatee County planners, staff and BOCC members have been catering to the request of developers and mining interests with little if any respect to the intent of past lawmakers who had put the environmental issues above the follies of special interests.
Clague said, "I strongly advise, even if you want to later change the Comp Plan, that you go forward and approve the changes." Clague added, "It would be dangerous to not."
One by one, citizens explained why any move now, without clearly mapping a protective shield around the wetland laws, is in fact what would be dangerous. Several of the speakers spoke about their efforts to have the county produce an inventory of its existing wetlands.
Peggy Dessaint read a statement from the Chair of the Conservation Committee in the Manatee/Sarasota Sierra Club, Sandy Ripberger, who was out of town.
In the statement, Ripberger requested that the county take an inventory of existing wetlands as well as all of the wetlands lost under current rule. Ripberger also notes: "there is no definition of 'non-viable wetland' anywhere, nor is there such a thing as an 'isolated' wetland."
Clague used both terms frequently through his presentation.
Barbara Hines said, "a kidney functioning at 40 percent, is still functioning."
Barbara Angelucci says, "Sarasota, Martin and Hillsborough counties support the 'No Impact Rule.' Mitigation does not work and the county needs to revise the wording of 'Overriding Benefit.' You need to protect the wetlands."
Clague used the term "overriding benefit" frequently also, but never could tie a definition to it when asked to do so. He said, "It would be too hard to clearly define it."
Many of the citizena that were there asked why, with all of the oblique terms running through the new changes, is there such a rush to get it passed?
There were a lot of questions, and few answers, and Clague, when he didn't have one, would just look at the Commission and say, "I strongly advise against dragging your heels."
Clague stated he was in the middle and wouldn't make anyone happy, but it didn't look that way in his frequent chumming with heavy hitters Pat Neal, Carlos Beruff and Hugh Maquire, who were there to make sure all went well. Their statements clearly defined their support for the wetland changes.
Beruff and Neal are the largest builders in the region and Maguire represents them both, and also represents Mosaic Mining. The three have had more wetland issues brought before the commission then any other applicants.
Clearly, Clague has orchestrated all of the legal issue that have walked Mosaic Mining to their permitted goals and assisted the majority of the developments with the same greased wheel. He admits, it is his job "to get them permitted." Joel Christian, Manatee County's Environmental Manager, has also told me the same thing. Christian is sitting second chair to Clague through the whole Wetland Ordinance change process.
Tuesday was the first of two meetings before the BOCC decides whether to approve the changes. On Thursday, there will be a conversational workshop in the Manatee Room on the 4th floor of the Administrative Building, 1112 Manatee Avenue West, in Bradenton.
The public is invited to come and ask questions, make statements and challenge, if they wish, the process of this historical action.