Monday, June 6, 2016

Lobeck: Nature at Risk Wednesday

Nature at Risk Wednesday

Comprehensive Plan “Update” Weakens Environmental Protections

The Sarasota County Commission will hold its hearings on proposals to severely weaken controls on developers Wednesday June 8 at 1:30 pm and Friday June 10 at 9 am, at the north County Administration Center, 1660 Ringling Boulevard.

The proposals are in an “Update” of the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan.

The changes have been proposed by County staff but made worse by the County Commission-appointed Planning Commission, which includes two developers and four top executives of construction companies, among others who make their living in development.

It is possible that the County Commission will make the “Update” even worse.  

More bad changes are being sought by COBA, the Sarasota Coalition of Business Associations – in addition to those they got already.  At the top of COBA's list of members is the Argus Foundation.  One of the County Commissioners, Christine Robinson, is the current Executive Director of the Argus Foundation.  COBA’s principal spokesman in the “Update” is attorney Bill Merrill, president of the Argus Foundation when they hired Robinson.   Also on the County Commission is Alan Maio, who is a managing partner for Kimley-Horn, a consulting firm for developers who will benefit if restrictions are weakened.  All of the other County Commissioners  are also heavily indebted to developers for their generous campaign contributions and support.

The question to be answered:  Will our County Commissioners serve the broader public who they are elected to serve or their employers and patrons in the development industry?

The Wednesday hearing is on changes to the Environment Chapter and various others.  The Friday hearing is on the Chapters for Land Use, Economic Development, Mobility and Public Utilities.

Members of the public may speak for up to five minutes at the hearings on any Chapter.  Just fill out a speaker card available at either side of the back of the room and hand it to the clerk at the front on the right, then wait until you are called. Concerned citizens should protest betrayals of the public interest in the Comprehensive Plan Update.

Among the proposed changes in the current County draft of the Environment Chapter, which will be taken up for discussion by the County Commission Wednesday are the following:
  • Destroys this very important requirement on developers: “The clustering of residential developments or the implementation of other measures to first     a void, then minimize and mitigate adverse environmental impacts shall be required whenever areas of significant native habitats are involved.”  This would be eliminated by striking the words “shall be required” and inserting the word “Encourage” at the beginning.  [Policy 1.3.6, replacing Policy 4.5.11] 
  • Allows currently prohibited environmental destruction and adverse impacts so long as they are deemed “de minimus” (minor) by the developer’s consultant and accepted by the County.  That is a potentially serious new loophole, particularly because the standard is undefined.  [Principles for Evaluating Development Proposals in Native Habitats] 
  • Weakens the current wetland protection being litigated in environmentalists’ challenge to the County allowing the developers of Whole Foods and Wawa stores to pave over a valuable urban wetland.  At present, if a wetland has value, it must be preserved unless “no other reasonable alternative exists.”  The amendment would allow that finding based on the “landscape context” and “long-term viability of the native habitat.”  In other words, if there is development around a valuable wetland, particularly if it is at all harmful to any habitat, the developer can use that to justify paving over the wetland. [Principles, VI.2. 
  • Deletes the strict requirement for 30 foot wetland buffers and 50 foot mesic hammock buffers, providing that a developer may provide “variable buffer widths” so long as the developer’s consultant says (and the County agrees) that will provide “equal or greater native habitat value.” [Principles, VI.2.j]
  •  Deletes the County Objective to “Identify, manage and protect all ecological communities, habitat corridors and wildlife, especially critical habitats and endangered, threatened, and species of special concern identified in official federal, state, or international treaty lists.”  That is replaced with a much weaker Objective to “Identify, manage, and protect ecological communities, and native habitats.”  [Obj. 1.1, replacing Obj. 4.4]
  •  Deletes the requirement that prior to disturbing any listed species and its habitat, a developer must identify them by recognized sampling techniques and provide such documentation to the County.  Instead, simply prior “coordination” with the government is required and as such the species and habitat identification can be conducted later.  [Policy 2.1.3, replacing Policy 4.4.4]
  •  Deletes the Policy requiring that open space in a development “favor factors such as onsite and adjacent off-site habitat connectivity”, leaving in place only a weaker policy that requires connectivity to established greenways. [Policy 1.3.3, replacing Policy 4.5.4]
  •  Weakens the requirement that a developer remove invasive and nuisance vegetation in native habitats and conservation areas, by removing the word “maximum” from the present requirement that it be done “to the maximum extent practical.” [Policy 1.5.6, replacing Policy 4.6.6]
  •  Weakens scrub jay protection by protecting them to “support” their persistence rather than “ensure” it, as at present. [Policy 2.1.0, replacing Policy 4.4.8]
  •  Deletes the conditions of necessity and feasibility for additional access to Gulf and bay waters. [Objective 4.3, former Obj. 1.3]
  •  Deletes the requirement for the development of a Beach and Inlet Management strategy.  The statement of six short bullet points that deserve “consideration” by the County in managing its beaches and inlets is not a sufficient substitute for the plan which the Chapter currently requires be created by 2015. [Policy 4.7.1, replacing Policy 1.2.3]
  •  Deletes the requirement of an Urban Forestry Management Plan (which has been overdue since 2006).  The new policies proposed to, in one sentence each, promote tree canopy and community gardens are sparse and unclear and do not adequately substitute for the presently required Plan. [Policies 1.5.1 and 5.1.7, replacing Policy 4.6.1]
  •  In a matter of some recent local controversy, deletes, “The County shall support and fund the Environmental Library.”  Originally, the proposal was to replace that with, “The county shall support and fund environmental education programs.”  Since public and press objections to actions even now  to dismantle the Environmental Library, on June 1 staff added to that, “including a collection of environmental resources accessible to the public through the county library system.”  However, even that wording could allow the county library system to follow through on its moves to eliminate the Environmental Library at Selby Library and disperse what remains of the collection through the broader library and to colleges and elsewhere where the materials would be accessible “through” the library system, although not in it.  [Policy 5.1.2, replacing Policy 4.7.2]

Dan Lobeck

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