Saturday, August 26, 2006

Loophole allows permits for clearing panther habitat

Federal, state agencies that require wildlife protections don't review requests beforehand if county deems they fall under Right to Farm Act

By Eric Staats

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Protection for the Florida panther, wood storks and red-cockaded woodpeckers could be falling through a gap in Collier County’s permitting system.

Since 2004, the county has given the go-ahead for scattered rural landowners to clear land totaling almost one square mile for nurseries and pastures without requiring state and federal review to see whether the clearing would harm endangered or threatened species, according to a review of county records.

The county's policy is to notify landowners that they might need state and federal wildlife or wetlands permits and to notify the state and federal agencies that the county has approved a so-called Agricultural Clearing Notification. Most of the time, though, nothing happens, according to county records.

County officials say the state's so-called Right to Farm Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 2000, prohibits local governments from restricting farm operations through their land development laws. Environmental groups disagree with that interpretation.

"That's a real bugaboo with this county," Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said. "If the landowner says ag, the county goes deaf, dumb and blind, and it's 'Whew, one less thing for me to worry about.'"

Before a change in county policy in 2004, the county issued permits for agricultural clearing but not until landowners got any permits they needed from state or federal environmental agencies.

In 2004, the county stopped issuing permits for agricultural clearing and instead began issuing the "notifications."

"It's a system that I understand puts us in an appropriate legal process under the Right to Farm Act," said county Natural Resources Director Bill Lorenz.

To qualify as exempt from local regulations under the Right to Farm Act, landowners must prove their land is classified as agricultural by the property appraiser and submit a list of environmentally friendly farming practices they intend to use.

The county's application requires proof of ownership, an inventory of vegetation on site, a clearing plan and a $250 fee.

"There is a misconception by some property owners that the Right to Farm Act is the get-out-of-jail-free card," Payton said.

Of the 16 notifications the county has issued, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sent letters to three of the landowners raising endangered species concerns. Two of those landowners did nothing further, they said. It is unclear whether they would have needed state or federal permits.

Paul Souza, acting supervisor in the Fish and Wildlife Service's office in Vero Beach, acknowledged earlier this month that it is difficult for the agency to keep track of clearing plans if they avoid wetlands that trigger federal review.

The agency takes "appropriate action" when it learns of "big projects" that might affect endangered species, he said.

All but 40 acres covered under the notifications issued since 2004 have been issued for land in North Belle Meade, some 15,000 acres north of Interstate 75 and east of Collier Boulevard.

The bulk of the approved clearing, 535 acres at the HHH Ranch in North Belle Meade, got the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ranch owner Francis Hussey Jr. wants to harvest timber and improve pasture on a 962-acre site where he also has plans to mine rock for development.

The Fish and Wildlife Service sent Hussey a letter to say the plans could run afoul of the Endangered Species Act unless he created a plan to protect endangered species. The site includes habitat for the Florida panther, red-cockaded woodpecker and wood stork, according to the letter.

Hussey said earlier this month that, even before getting the letter, he had a consultant working on plans to protect wildlife.

Two other landowners who received similar letters from the Fish and Wildlife Service said they considered them courtesy letters that required no further action.

"I took it as a confirmation that someone else knew what we're doing and that it's OK," said Marlee Rognrud.

James and Marlee Rognrud qualified for a permitting exemption from the county under the Right to Farm Act to partially clear or thin out vegetation on a portion of almost 20 acres in North Belle Meade to create a grazing area. She said the county review process does a good job of protecting the land.

"It's complicated enough to get to use your land without having to go through everyone else first," she said.

Landowner James Jesella, who has received two agricultural clearing notifications covering 10 acres in North Belle Meade, said the county’s reviews for agricultural clearing already are too burdensome.

"It's like some birds are more important that any humans out there," he said.

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