Next on the chopping block: wildlife protection
Hillsborough County employs about 10,000 people, but, blaming budget cuts, county commissioners are poised to lay off the ONE guy responsible for protecting our wildlife from the bulldozers. If they adopt the budget with this proposed cutback, they will gut our upland habitat protection program, just like they tried to gut our wetland protection program last summer.
We have only one wildlife biologist who manages and enforces our Upland Habitat Ordinance. The Environmental Scientist II position reviews development proposals to ensure that areas designated as “Significant Wildlife Habitat” are protected. He decides whether a site qualifies as “Significant” or “Essential” habitat. And if you want to report someone who is bulldozing gopher tortoise habitat or cutting down Scrub Jay nests, he’s the guy you call.
Without this single wildlife biologist in the Planning & Growth Management (PGM) department, we would have no one qualified to handle your habitat protection program. PGM director Peter Aluotto says one of his staff’s urban foresters could try to take on these responsibilities, but foresters are not qualified for this job, and he knows it. Urban foresters are tree specialists, qualified for overseeing our tree ordinances, and deciding whether a tree can legally be cut down. The work requires a biologist, trained to evaluate habitat for various animal & plant species, assess damage to a whole ecological system and prescribe mitigation.
When a developer’s attorneys and their hired biologists testify at a zoning hearing about what type of ecosystem is on their site, and whether their project will impact this animal or that, they will claim our forester lacks the credentials to dispute their biologists — and they will be right. They will sue the county if our forester dares to restrict their development without adequate expert review — and they will win. Meanwhile, environmental groups could also sue the county for abandoning its responsibility to uphold our laws protecting our natural resources.
At the July 29 budget workshop, Commissioner Rose Ferlita responded to Aluotto’s idea of using a forester to do a biologist’s job:
“Well, pretty soon — and I’m being funny — we can have — because he may be not busy that afternoon — we can have an electrical inspector looking at it and see if maybe he thinks that we’re taking care of gopher turtles. I mean, then it becomes just a train wreck.”
Aluotto admitted his foresters are “not specifically trained” for this, offering,
“in those cases where they couldn’t — if they couldn’t get that job done, we would defer to state and federal agencies like Fish & Wildlife and DEP and those folks.”
Please. State agencies can not enforce Hillsborough County’s environmental standards. (Even if they could, they don’t have extra staff to lend us to do our work!) Aluotto’s suggestion that we “defer to state and federal agencies” is simply suggesting that we abandon our local rules protecting our wildlife habitat.
So why are we even thinking of eliminating our one and only wildlife biologist?
Good question – I’m glad you asked.
Some county commissioners have found the tanking housing market to be a good excuse to financially hamstring the agencies that regulate their developer buddies. Commissioner Jim Norman falsely claimed building had dropped 80% – 90%, arguing that we should cut these agencies by a similar percentage. After he was slammed by the Times’ Truth-O-Meter, Norman backed down from the 80% “off with their heads” stand, but still led the board to direct the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), and the Planning Commission to cut their budgets off at the knees — and PGM too, although they don’t want PGM cutting too many from their permitting staff, as that would inconvenience developers. (Heaven forbid we should slow down the process by which subdivisions and condos get built, because we don’t have nearly enough of that stuff laying around vacant driving down our home values.)
And so we find PGM’s Peter Aluotto offering to eliminate those positions that service small homeowners who want to add a room to the home they can’t sell in this market, and doing away with the one position that developers would most like to see eliminated: the one biologist qualified to handle wildlife habitat reviews.
Finally, at the July 31 workshop, the administration decided they need to meet with their “customers” to see how they want this handled. And by “customers” they do not mean us taxpaying residents of the county, they are talking about developers. That’s right, they want the regulated community to help decide which regulators they should fire.
But since it’s our money paying everyone’s salary, shouldn’t we tell them who to hire and fire?
If, somewhere between the subdivisions and strip plazas, you’d like to see some natural spaces left green and alive with the wild magic of bobcats, foxes & otters — places where the woodpecker hammers out a staccato beat, and the Chuck-will’s-widow still sings, backed by a symphony of frogs — write your commissioners and tell them to keep the Environmental Scientist II in PGM’s budget. Here’s my letter. You can also speak to them at the public budget hearings, September 9 & 18, 6:00 p.m. at county center.