Haggling over the price of wetlands
I’m reminded of this anecdotal conversation between a man and woman:
“Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”
“Well, I guess I might.”
“Would you sleep with me for five dollars?”
“Sir, what kind of a woman do you take me for?”
“Madam, we have already established that; now we’re merely haggling over the price.”
Once we decide that our wetlands are negotiable, as long as their destruction is for a good cause—like agriculture—then we open the bidding for other “good causes.” Why not schools? Ball parks? Affordable housing? A mixed-use development with new-urbanism features, upscale design, an affordable component and a commercial element bringing high-tech jobs? The developers are already complaining that it’s unfair not to give them whatever exemptions we give the farmers.
The exemption allows agricultural operations to fill wetlands under a quarter-acre in size, with no mitigation, as long as the wetlands they destroy don’t add up to more than a half-acre, cumulatively, on any one site. A quarter-acre is not chump change in the wetland department. At almost 11,000 square feet, it provides important ecological functions. Small isolated wetlands are crucial to the survival of various species of wildlife, and their hydrological benefits are cumulative. Several small wetlands add up to a large amount of flood protection and water filtration.
Commissioners are set to change the rule in just a few weeks. What’s the rush? And why isn’t the new Technical Advisory Committee reviewing this major rule change? One of the things that has set our local wetlands regulations apart from the state’s, for 22 years, is that we protect our small wetlands, and the state doesn’t. Before we start giving these protections away, let’s give the newly formed committee of scientists some time to look this over.
Commissioner Higginbotham has been in the lead on this Ag Exemption, and he should slow this freight train down to avoid the appearance of ramming it through just to hand a political favor to one special interest group. We need more public discussion before rushing to change our county’s wetland regulations that have served us well for over 20 years.
EPC will hold a workshop on the Ag Exemptions, Sept. 24, 6 – 8 p.m., at the Roger P. Stewart Center, near I-75 & MLK. They’ll answer questions and take public input. You can also submit your comments in writing, by October 5, to Andrew Zodrow, of EPC (copy your County Commissioners). Finally, you can have your 3-minute say at the public hearing when the commissioners will decide the matter, Oct. 18, 9:00 a.m., County Center, 2nd floor, in downtown Tampa.
Here’s my letter posted on Sierra Club’s site, linked above, in last paragraph, to “my concerns”:
Comments on Proposed Agricultural Exemptions to the EPC Wetlands Protections
9/20/2007From: Mariella Smith
To: Andrew Zodrow,
Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County (EPC)
Please consider these comments on the proposed rule change for the Agricultural Exemption (1-11.12) and enter them into the record:
1. The new Technical Advisory Committee should be allowed time to review ALL proposed changes to our wetland protections, including this MAJOR change. One of the things that has set our local wetlands regulations apart from the state’s, for 22 years, is that we protect our small wetlands, and the state doesn’t. Before we start giving these protections away, let’s give the newly formed committee of scientists some time to look this over and make recommendations. There is no good reason to make this BIG rule change without the “scientific” review of this committee, and only afterwards get the committee of scientists together to review the rest of the changes. Frankly it feels like this first exemption is being rammed through too quickly, circumventing the full review process we were promised for this Hybrid, without enough time for public discussion, just to hand a political favor to one special interest group.
2. I’m glad to see logging is not included in the exemption, but I don’t see why we should include cattle farming, or any livestock operation. Surely cows (or chickens) can work around a small wetland? (Where they can’t, you can use the reasonable use criteria to destroy the wetland.) I’m also concerned that a few cows on a site for a few weeks could qualify for this exemption, allowing wetlands to be filled, then mitigated after the cows are removed, where we would not have allowed filling and mitigation otherwise.
3. If we are going to abandon small wetlands on farmland, we should at least limit the size of a farm that gets an exemption. A very large agricultural operation can easily avoid impacting a small wetland, and should.
4. I don’t see why a large agricultural operation should be allowed to destroy wetlands in order to build roads, bridges and culverts wherever they want. If the road could be reasonably aligned to avoid the wetland, it should be, and any wetlands destroyed for these purposes should be mitigated—in any industry, including agriculture.
5. I can see how a tomato field is ecologically different from a parking lot, but once the farmer has filled in the wetlands, what’s to stop him from selling that tomato field to a developer who will turn it into a parking lot? I’m glad to see the draft rule language now says if you don’t keep your land in agriculture for 5 years after destroying the wetlands, you must replace or mitigate for the wetland. Still, a farmer wanting to sell his land to a developer could be pressured to fill exempt wetlands before the land was bought—and paved. Sure, the developer would have to mitigate for the damage, after the fact, but he couldn’t have done the damage in the first place, without a farmer doing it for him under this Ag Exemption. Also, I’m concerned that this exemption would encourage people to fill wetlands right away, just in case they might want to develop the land 5 years from now. (I’d be less uncomfortable if (2)(c) said the wetlands “must be re-created in substantially the same location and in the substantially the same condition.” Period. With no other mitigation option.)
6. Finally, I have serious reservations about abandoning any wetlands, even for a “good cause” like agriculture. Once we decide that our wetlands are negotiable, as long as their destruction is for a good cause—like agriculture—then we open the bidding for other “good causes.” Why not schools? Ball parks? Affordable housing? A mixed-use development with new-urbanism features, upscale design, an affordable component and a commercial element bringing high-tech jobs? The developers are already complaining that it’s unfair not to give them whatever exemptions we give the farmers. How will you answer them?
I have not heard a rationale for exempting agriculture that would not apply to other industries. Farmers say it’s difficult to avoid wetlands while maneuvering their tractors around, but don’t developers need to maneuver their bulldozers around wetlands, too?
I can see many reasons to encourage agriculture over development, but I don’t see why we have to give away our small wetlands to do this. Surely we can—and do—give farmers other incentives.
We need more time to consider how best to address these and other issues. Please slow this freight train down and allow time for scientific review and public discussion before carving into stone any new exemptions from the wetland regulations that have served us so well for over 20 years.