Manatee County wetlands proposal eases rules via dubious term

May 5, 2013 

Two years ago, Manatee County mothballed a months-long effort to revise the land development code's provisions on wetlands. Today as back then, county staff contend the rewrite will align the outdated code with the newer comprehensive plan, an update to match language between the two key documents that regulate land development.

Little if anything has changed over those two years -- except an election in which three county commissioners took office, one incumbent and two newcomers.

The wetlands issue resurfaced in March with the first reading of the proposed ordinance amending the code. At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, commissioners are expected to vote on a staff recommendation to adopt the changes.

The rewrite still leaves deep divisions between environmentalists and developers. And the proposed code language still contains a baffling definition about the functionality of a wetland -- the same provision that brought an uproar two years ago, among other parts of the rewrite.

The comprehensive plan pledges to protect "viable" wetlands, a valuable resource for flood protection, wildlife habitat and aquifer resupply.

A 'nonviable' definition

But the proposed new rules allow the destruction of small ones without the developer being responsible for mitigation, which usually means the creation of a replacement wetland.

The proposal justifies wetlands loss through a dubious definition of "nonviable."

This involves the federal Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method, a scoring system for assessing wetland value and viability. A numeric score is determined by evaluating wetland location, the habitat's fish and wildlife, current conditions, uniqueness, and mitigation risk. The formula sets a final score between 0 and 1, with 0 being a nonfunctioning wetland and a 1 the best. Mitigation requirements and costs rise as the score increases.

Manatee County's code proposal identifies "nonviable" as an isolated wetland with a 0.4 UMAM score or lower and less than a half acre in size. That score means a wetland exhibits 40 percent of the highest level of functionality, not the greatest score but not one worthy of a "nonviable" designation.

But functionality still exists. Neither state nor federal environmental regulators employ "nonviable" to describe a 0.4 score, labeling those wetlands as minimal or low functioning.

A misleading proposition

But with a Manatee County "nonviable" listing, developers would not be required to avoid or minimize an impact on a wetland as now required under the comprehensive plan.

That would violate the comprehensive plan under current code standards, but the "nonviable" designation aligns the two documents.

Here's how: The comprehensive plan pledges to "Preserve and protect existing, viable wetland systems ..." The word "nonviable" cannot be found in the 696-page document. Neither can a 0.4 UMAM score. But since the land development code rewrite defines "viable" as a score greater than 0.4, any score under that benchmark falls outside the comp plan's protection clause.

All the county had to do to align the comp plan and code was place a restriction on what a "viable" wetland is -- a limitation that defies the English language. The proposed new code only matches language in the comp plan in a deceptive way.

Under the code proposal, environmentalists fear consultants will be amenable to providing a lot of 0.4 scores to get certain projects approved.

Wetlands mitigation is expensive, with one developer estimating an additional $3,000 to the cost of an average new home in the county.

Environment vs. economy

But should the county allow for wetlands destruction without mitigation, who benefits -- the home buyer with a reduced sales price, or the builder with a fatter profit margin?

Manatee County's real estate market is rebounding nicely. Should wetlands regulations be weakened now?

Twenty months ago, we opined that there should be a balance between jobs and economic development versus wetlands and environmental protection. We also stated the pendulum should not swing too far in one direction, to the detriment of the other.

While the deceptive "nonviable" designation only applies to half-acre, isolated wetlands that exhibit minimal function, environmentalists argue that all wetlands hold value for the ecosystem. We agree.

The question Tuesday is whether commissioners are comfortable with misleading the public on the viability of these wetlands. This definition of nonviable is unacceptable. The standard is set too low for the quality of life in this community. We've got to have a better, more cooperative balance between development and environment.

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