In a near-unanimous vote, the Wakulla County Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended stripping wetland protections from the county’s comprehensive plan. Monday night’s meeting was only the latest in battles for control of the community’s wetlands.
Close to thirty citizens commented at Monday night’s meeting and after the decision to remove wetland protections from the county’s comprehensive plan, reaction from opponents was swift.
Environmentalists say omitting a 75-foot buffer zone around wetlands will cause irreparable harm to Wakulla’s natural beauty. But not everyone agrees. John Lender owns property bordering a wetland. He argued that the county’s buffer zone has made his property useless.
“At one point I know it’s 75 but, you could get it down to 35-foot and I could get it on all sides but one, by a few feet. And I just kind of feel disappointed that I’m sitting here, paying property taxes on something that’s basically a worthless piece of dirt. I can’t do anything with it,” Lender said.
Like Lender, many proponents of repeal have argued buffer zones infringe on their property rights. In response, Wakulla County commissioners have voted three different times to repeal and amend the wetland protection ordinance and conservation language from the comprehensive plan. But their action always needed further approval from the planning commissioners. Robert Alessi is one of those commissioners. He’s also the only planning official to vote against repeal. He thinks property owners are exaggerating limits on development.
“I don’t see what the big hub bub is about this. Nobody has said anything to me, you know that we’ve heard tonight, to justify why if we’ve already had it for all these years and it’s been functioning… why isn’t it functioning?” Alessi said.
Conservationists in the county contend that science shows further development around wetlands will harm already struggling ecosystems and reduce revenue generated by tourist attractions like glass-bottomed boats. Victor Lambou, founder of the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance, said he’s surprised at the plan commission’s vote but is undeterred in his mission to keep wetland protections in place.
“We are focusing on the county referendum and we’re collecting signatures to put it on the ballot in the next general election and the way we’re going we think we’ll be successful in getting it on the ballot. Then it will be up to the people,” Lambou avowed.
If Lambou’s petition makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters, it would cement wetland protections in the county charter by requiring a unanimous county commission vote in order to amend or repeal protections in the future. The Wakulla County Commission is expected to approve the Planning and Zoning recommendations November 4th.