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Fledgling Environmental Group Seeks To Bring Back Repealed Wetlands Ordinance

Wakulla County Commissioner Howard Kessler says the county’s famed wetlands is an environmental treasure that is being threatened by a near unanimous vote to strip wetland protection language from county law. Kessler was the lone dissenter in that vote. But, his colleague, Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas argues the ordinance created a burdensome duplication of state protections.

“Our water management now regulates isolated wetlands and put some protections in place that did not exist prior to our ordinance coming about. So, when I looked at everything, I figured out the protections were sufficient based on the state level,” Thomas asserted.

The fight over wetlands regulation goes as far back as the 1980s when the state of Florida mandated counties draft what they call a comprehensive plan. It’s a map of sorts, which lays out the county’s intentions- what they’d like to build and what land they’d like to protect. That plan included preserving wetlands. That meant the county was taking responsibility for drafting regulations on the wetlands' use. But, officials didn't draft a county environmental protection ordinance until 2006 and it wasn’t that long after that a landowner challenged the law. It got thrown out in court, but county officials created a replacement ordinance in 2010.  Wakulla County Commissioner Randy Merritt remarked the argument against the ordinance was the same then as it is now- property rights.

“You cannot build your house without getting any closer than 35 feet to those wetlands, you know without violating the wetlands, you can’t typically build the house without getting within 35 feet, you just can’t build the house. So, it makes your property useless,” Merritt avowed.

The 2010 wetlands ordinance set up a system of buffer zones that total 75 feet around any wetland area. Under the ordinance, land owners could only build up to the first forty feet of that zone with proper permission. But, those last 35 feet were off limits to any construction other than walkways or trails. Now that county officials have repealed the ordinance, land owners just have to follow the state's rules and Florida's buffer zone only extends about 20 feet out from the wetlands and with the right permit; a landowner can even build past it. That’s why Wakulla resident Victor Lambou created the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance- to find a way to bring the original ordinance back.

“It evolved very simply with the proposal to do away with the 35 foot buffer and then to go further and do away with the wetlands ordinance itself and to take any mention of wetlands out of the comprehensive plan and some of the organizations were very concerned,” Lambou said.

Supporters of Lambou’s group like Commissioner Howard Kessler agree the county is better suited to protecting its own resources. He says the law isn’t duplicative but necessary because he contended state standards aren’t stringent enough.

“They may have more expertise in the state but they’re spread so thin that to rely on them to be more than a permitting agency I think is unrealistic. So, the first thing is: it’s not redundant. Our protections are much greater than the state’s protections,” Kessler said.

Meanwhile the newly created Wakulla Wetlands Alliance is moving forward with a county-wide referendum. The group wants to put the ordinance in the county’s charter, much in the same way an amendment makes it into the state constitution. In order to do so, the WWA needs at least 30% of Wakulla residents to sign Lambou's petition. He has six months from his official starting date to get the required signatures.