Area Wetlands Win Reprieve From Federal Judge

By  | 

A federal judge Thursday put a halt to development that would destroy up to 2,000 acres of wetlands in the Florida Panhandle.

A special permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes it too easy for the St. Joe Co. to build houses, apartments, offices, stores, warehouses and other projects likely to damage the environment, ruled U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan.

The decision marks the third time this year a federal judge has ruled that the corps was too lenient in allowing the destruction of Florida wetlands.

The decision could affect a plan by the state's home builders to get the corps to issue similar special permits for other regions of Florida.

"People all over Florida are digging in and saying, ‘enough!'" said Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, one of the environmental groups that opposed the Panhandle permit.

Corrigan ordered St. Joe to stop work on a 1,300-home golf course development that environmental activists warned would destroy a lake in Walton County.

The special permit covers more than 48,000 acres of the Panhandle, three-fourths of which belongs to St. Joe, the state's largest private landowner.

Corps officials did not respond to a request for comment.

St. Joe spokesman Jerry Ray said the ruling was "an unfortunate step toward reversing the permanent protection status of these wetlands and other conservation land."

The corps approves more permits to destroy wetlands in Florida than any other state, and allows a higher percentage of destruction in Florida than nationally. Between 1999 and 2003, it approved more than 12,000 wetland permits in Florida and rejected one. So far this year it has denied five permits.

Although federal policy since 1990 has called for no net loss of wetlands, a satellite imagery analysis by the St. Petersburg Times has found that about 84,000 acres of Florida's wetlands have been wiped out by homes, schools, stores and roads.

The Panhandle permit, issued by the corps last year, was designed to speed up building on land that until now has been used for growing pine trees.

For 60 years St. Joe was the state's biggest paper company, but starting in the mid 1990s, the company transformed itself into Florida's most ambitious developer, building homes and hotels, hospitals and schools, golf courses and shopping centers, theaters and restaurants, offices and industrial parks.

A proposed 4,000-acre airport north of Panama City, which would wipe out about 2,000 acres of wetlands, is part of a separate application the corps is still considering.

Normally St. Joe's many projects would require scores of federal permits for wiping out wetlands.

Processing all those permits could take years, since each one would require posting a public notice that would invite comments from federal and state agencies, environmental groups, civic activists and potential neighbors.

So, after three years of closed-door meetings with St. Joe executives, the corps issued a single regional permit setting guidelines for filling in wetlands. Between 1,500 and 2,000 acres of wetlands could be destroyed.

Instead of a permit for each project, "The landowner designates where they'll have an impact and we issue a letter of approval," explained corps special projects manager Bob Barron in an interview last year.

There would be no public notice.

Judge Corrigan agreed with the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups that such regional permits are supposed to be issued only when they cover activities "similar in nature" and have only minimal effect on the environment.

The corps argued that all the diverse St. Joe projects were "suburban development" and thus similar in nature. Corrigan said that made sense only if the phrase were "robbed of all its meaning." And he said so many projects would clearly have more than just a minimal effect on the environment.

By granting the preliminary injunction, the judge found that the environmental groups would probably win their suit to overturn the permit. He has scheduled final arguments for February.

In September a judge ruled that a corps permit for the controversial Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County failed to take into account the impact of the other development it is intended to spawn.

In April another federal judge overturned a corps permit allowing Florida Rock to mine in wetlands in panther habitat because the corps failed to consider the cumulative impacts on panthers from all the other permits it issued in the area.