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Florida Pushes to Toughen Wetlands Protection Regulations

March 5, 1991

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ Botanist Ted Hendrickson grabbed a fistful of black muck and tossed it toward the construction cranes busily building foundations for hundreds of homes on what was once prime Florida wetlands.

″I’m not saying this isn’t a nice place to live. It just never should have been built,″ Hendrickson said as he pointed to Weston, a half-finished development of 2,200 homes so far.

Weston, with homes priced between $75,000 and $1 million, is pushing green lawns and two-car garages deeper into the Everglades than any previous South Florida development has gone.

Such construction, Hendrickson said, destroys the irreplaceable.

″They have to destroy these soils to build on them, and nothing man creates can bring them back,″ he said. ″No mitigation can replace up to 4,000 years of soil formation.″

Hendrickson is one of a growing number of scientists and state officials who say that state laws that let developers destroy sensitive ecological areas as long as they promise to ″mitigate″ the damage by building or preserving other wetlands have failed to protect Florida’s fragile environmental habitats.

State officials were to ask the Legislature today put more teeth in the process.

According to a recent study by the state Department of Environmental Regulation, fewer than one-fifth of the state’s manmade wetlands function as well as the natural systems they replace. And a third of the time, developers don’t follow through on promises to replace destroyed wetlands, the study said.

Critics also complain that wetlands often lose out in political negotiations between officials and developers.

Weston’s developer, Arvida JMB Partners of Boca Raton, has agreed to build 348 acres of wetlands and turn 265 acres of soggy farmland and malaleuca trees into deep water areas of habitat in exchange for being allowed to drain and fill 1,652 acres of wetlands.

The National Wildlife Federation maintains the developer should have been ordered to replace an additional 600 to 1,200 acres.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved the Weston agreement over the objection of Chuck Schnepl, the agency’s supervisor in Miami. Schnepl determined that virtually all of the Weston property qualified as wetlands.

″The Corps of Engineers, by cutting a deal with the developer, has essentially picked the pocket of the public,″ said David White, a National Wildlife Federation attorney. ″The law requires these decisions to be made on science, not political deal-making.″

Arvida officials said replacing one-third of the wetlands is a fair trade.

″We’ll be replacing low-quality wetlands with higher quality wetlands. ... we’re going to build lakes that look more like God-made lakes,″ said Ted Brown, Arvida’s general counsel.

State environmental officials planned to present their study to the Legislature today along with funding requests to triple the department’s nine- person enforcement staff so that it can monitor compliance more closely.

″There will be changes in the way we do business,″ said Ann Redmond, who coordinates the mitigation permit process for the DER.

Florida officials aren’t alone in pushing for tougher wetlands protection.

William Reilly, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said he was shocked by the degradation he saw during a tour of the Everglades last week. He said he would fight for stiffer legislation in Congress.

But some scientists and bureaucrats say such reforms aren’t enough to fix a system they charge is based on faulty science and corrupted by political wheeling and dealing.

Under federal mitigation laws, the nation’s marshes, swamps and other wetland areas can be destroyed only if developers agree to re-create artificial wetlands on the property or preserve an equal amount of wetlands elsewhere.

Done correctly, the manmade projects can provide a home to native plants and animals, although the range and species that once lived in Florida’s marshes and streams probably won’t return, environmentalists say.

But neglected or improperly built, manmade wetlands can become choked with weeds, stagnant and polluted, said Dade County planner Jean Evoy.

″It’s an arrogant concept,″ Evoy said. ″It presupposes that you know what you’re destroying and that you have some godlike ability to create something as good.″

″God creates, man constructs, and man constructs poorly,″ Schnepl said. ″There isn’t any way that man can construct an organic muck layer.″

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