Monday, November 20, 2006

Bush, Cabinet seek to change designation of prime Florida panther habitat

Area of Critical State Concern designation was put in place in 1973

By Eric Staats

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Nothing was more controversial in Collier County in 1973 than Florida’s efforts to enact environmental protection rules across hundreds of thousands of the county’s most remote acres.

Decades later, state growth regulators who are considering wiping the Big Cypress Area of Critical State Concern off the map have a fight on their hands to keep the rules in place.

In a report Friday to Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet, state Department of Community Affairs Secretary Thaddeus Cohen recommended starting the process of dropping the Area of Critical State Concern and leaving the job of environmental protection to the county’s landmark 2002 growth plan.

The idea could come up for a Cabinet vote as early as Dec. 5.

Collier County commissioners are set to vote on a recommendation Nov. 28.

“DCA staff is still working with stakeholders in Collier to evaluate the issue as thoroughly as possible,” DCA communications director Adam Sohn said.

Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said the governor hasn’t reviewed the details of the DCA’s report.

“The governor generally supports the concept of de-designation for this area,” she said. “It’s a sign of recovery.”

Back in 1973, protection of the Big Cypress was just getting started. The first version of the Area of Critical State Concern proposal, taking in almost all of Collier County except the urban area of Naples, drew hundreds of jeering people to a state hearing in Everglades City, according to press accounts.

Weeks later, with the proposal scaled back to its current boundaries, then-Gov. Reubin Askew and the Cabinet presided over a hearing attended by some 800 people crammed into the Naples High School auditorium.

The meeting was historic for being held outside of Tallahassee.

As high-profile as the debate was to create the Area of Critical State Concern — in itself a landmark achievement in the history of Florida growth controls — it came as a surprise to environmental advocates and landowners alike when word of its possible demise filtered down from Tallahassee in early November.

Since then, environmental groups have put their lawyers to work to try to save the Area of Critical State Concern and advocates are calling and paying visits to Cabinet aides to lobby their cause.

Jennifer Hecker, Conservancy of Southwest Florida natural resources policy manager, said the timing of the proposal to remove the Area of Critical State Concern, as Bush prepares to leave office, “is more than a coincidence.”

“We feel these resources continue to be of the utmost importance ... and continue to deserve the protections offered by the ACSC designation,” she said.

The law that created the Area of Critical State Concern sets strict clearing limits within its boundaries, requires that development handle its runoff in a way that mimics nature and forbids building structures or roads that will block water flows over land. Agriculture is largely exempted from its rules.

The DCA’s report recommends that the DCA “initiate a dialogue with the private landowners to encourage restoration” of agricultural lands to their natural state and to “provide appropriate policies” for the county to use “if an agricultural use is terminated.”

The proposal to remove the designation comes as eastern Collier County is under unprecedented development pressure.

Collier Enterprises has proposed building a new town east of Golden Gate Estates called Big Cypress. Barron Collier Cos. is a partner in the development of the new town of Ave Maria to the east of Big Cypress.

Big Cypress and Ave Maria are both outside of the Area of Critical State Concern but within the county’s Rural Lands Stewardship Area, created by the 2002 growth plan. Under the plan, developers can set aside environmentally sensitive land to earn credits to build on less sensitive land. Big Cypress is proposing to set aside 27,000 acres under the program. Ave Maria has set aside 17,000 acres.

The Area of Critical State Concern covers some 830,000 acres, much of which has been put in public hands at the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite the protections of the county’s growth plan and the public preserves, the Area of Critical State Concern designation still is important to improve water quality in coastal wetlands and to restore historic flow-ways, Hecker said.

The county’s growth plan repeatedly refers to the Area of Critical State Concern and environmental groups worry that the regulators have not thought through the effect on the county’s growth plan of dropping it.

In one case, the rural lands rules give extra credit to developers who preserve land in the Area of Critical State Concern. Without it in place, the fate of those extra credits is in question.

That has gotten the attention of Collier Enterprises, where executives were caught off guard by news of the Area of Critical State Concern proposal, company vice president Margaret Emblidge said.

Emblidge said company officials still are “trying to understand the thought behind it” and don’t support the idea.

“Our reaction is we don’t think it’s a good thing,” she said.

Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said environmental groups are mounting a “full-court press” to keep a vote off the Cabinet’s agenda.

“We just don’t understand what’s the rush,” Payton said. “What’s the hurry?” _seek_change_designation_big_cypress/?local_news

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