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Builders aim to reduce wetland buffers in Manatee County

Written by on Saturday, August 12, 2023

Rules to protect wetlands in Manatee County are on their way out if a local builder’s association gets its way—which would mean reducing buffers, risking the water quality and health of local wildlife.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: August 11, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: A builders association asked, and Manatee County wants to comply. Rules to protect wetlands embedded in the county’s comprehensive plan are on their way out, if the builders get their way, to be replaced solely with state rules outlining construction near water. That, in turn, means reducing buffers—the physical distance required with building in or near wetlands.

Our news team followed the meeting of the Manatee County Planning Commission on Thursday, which was the first of a series of events allowing public input.

The meeting opened with a statement by a consultant hired by Manatee County. Wearing a suit and tie, a soft spoken Dan DeLisi rendered a bureaucratic justification for the move: it’s all about eliminating “overlapping rules” that are forcing builders to go through two reviews rather than one. State rules are more up-to-date with current science and the county rules, he argued.

One Planning Commission member asked him whether eliminating county buffer requirements which are bigger than the states’ wouldn’t mean reducing standards. In his response, DeLisi seemed to suggest that physical distance does not necessarily mean better protection.

Daniel DeLisi: My recommendation is to defer wetland regulation to the state. I don’t believe that reduces water quality. I don’t believe that reduces protections on wetlands that are out there. And the reason why I say that, is because I know the state’s regulatory system and I know how vibrant and how effective it is and the science that it’s based on.

Host: Even so, this did not turn out to be a home game for builders and bureaucrats. The Manatee County Commission chambers in downtown Bradenton were packed after environmental groups and the Manatee League of Women Voters mobilized people to defend existing rules. Many wore “Right to Clean Water” and “Suncoast Waterkeeper” shirts. Speaker after speaker registered their discontent to the Manatee Planning Commission members about the intent to strip the comprehensive plan of protections for wetlands.

Highlights: former County Commissioner Joe McClash delivered a presentation underlined by catchy slights that included a photo of a dead manatee. “Do no harm” he urged commissioners, asking them to include wildlife in their considerations, take more time and get “more science.”

Rusty Chinnis, a local fisherman and walking environmental legend, talked about algae blooms, red tide and seeing bad things happening in local waters he has never seen before. “Our water quality’s in serious, serious jeopardy,” he said. “We need to increase our protections, not reduce them,” he urged the planning commissioners.

The most memorable moment came when the short presentation of a PhD in Environmental Geography dragged the discussion from bureaucracy versus emotional appeals deep into the terrain of science. Dr. Abbey Tyrna represents Suncoast Waterkeeper. That’s a local group that has a history of taking Manatee County to court, thus forcing them to take environmental protection measures.

Tyrna argued that physical distance between construction and wetlands does make all the difference. She was challenged by planning commission Chair Bill Conerly, who sported his credentials as an environmental engineer. Conerly asked her to produce the science that says so, and she did.

Here’s the full length of Tyrna’s argument and the ensuing exchange with Conerly.

Dr, Abbey Tyrna: Hi, my name is Dr. Abbey Tyrna, and my county of residence is Sarasota but I’m here representing Suncoast Waterkeeper, whose watersheds extend from Manatee River all the way down to Lemon Bay. I’m also representing the 1,435 individuals who have signed our petition asking for these comprehensive plan changes not to go through.

I’m a wetland scientist. I grew up in Lake County, and as a wetland scientist I can tell you that none of these decisions are based on science. And actually, a reduction of a buffer, even if it’s five feet, there’s science to support that bigger, more, actually lends to more functions from wetlands.

So why are we worried about wetlands? Because wetlands are intrinsically tied to our water quality. So in a place where Lake Manatee is literally full of blue green algae, and it’s our drinking water source, and we’re talking about decreasing the wetlands in that watershed so that we can have more development? I ask you, does that sound like a right choice for the future?

So as a wetland scientists, and any other wetland scientists that would like to talk to you would tell you that, in fact, wetlands are tied to not just water quality. Wetlands are tied to our drinking water and wetlands are tied to our wildlife. So when you reduce wetlands, you reduce all of that. When you reduce the buffer, you also reduce the function of these wetlands.

I’d be happy to submit in the record additional studies that Joe McClash did not submit because there are books on this stuff. Thank you so much.

Bill Conerly: Dr. Tyrna, you said you’re environmental scientist, right?

AT: Yes.

BC: Okay. I’d like to maybe take an opportunity to get some clarification. I know a lot of people don’t deal with this. I’m a licensed engineer in the state of Florida. And I’ve been permitting through the Water Management District in Manatee County for many years. So there’s a fair representation of science associated with what we’re talking about and specifically the reduction of buffers. So as I’ve experienced both doing Environmental Resource permits and permits through Manatee County—have you done Environmental Resource permitting?

AT: I have not.

BC: Have you permitted through Manatee County?

AT: I have not, I’ve only reviewed permits.

BC: Alright. That might not be pertinent, but let me ask you this. What is the measurable, the science associated with buffers? And sizing the buffers?

AT: Yeah, there’s a great detail of science. So, it depends on, what is your goal? So, is your goal to promote water quality? Is your goal to promote habitat? Is your goal to promote flood retention? What is your goal? Depending on your goal, you’re gonna have to size the buffer accordingly. But what you’ll find is that the bigger the buffer, the higher the score is for whatever water body you’re trying to protect, the conditional score.

BC: Right.

AT: But then also, I would also like to add that, depending on your goal, it really doesn’t matter. The science shows that less than 30 feet or nine meters—

BC: [Overlapping] What science? That’s what I’m trying to, I keep hearing “science” thrown out as a broad term.

AT: [Overlapping] In 2008, the EPA put together a guide for local governments, and that guide tells you about wetland protection and wetland buffers. So I highly recommend a review of that guide. That guide is based on science and actually shows about eight studies about how to size your wetland buffers.

BC: Right, EPA has rule-making authority, why wouldn’t they make this a rule that’s implemented?

AT: Well, because they have tried. Have you ever followed the rule-making process? Because there’s goals and then they put all, like, the science behind those goals. And then as the process continues, it gets attacked by interest, and then it slowly, slowly chips away at the actual rule that was meant to meet the goal.

BC: Right. I’ve been doing Environmental Resource permits and permitting through local agencies for 24 years. I’ve never been asked to provide any calculations associated with benefits of buffers, it’s typically a presumption of benefit. And that’s, it just moves forward. I’ve seen no mechanism that allows you to calculate the benefit and that’s what I’m trying to understand. I’m hearing “science” thrown out as a broad explanation of the size of the buffer. But I think most of the stuff we’re dealing with is presumptive. That’s like the 100 foot for outstanding Florida waters. That’s presumptive.

AT: I would recommend Wardrop et all 2007 which talks about how to quantify the condition of a wetland using a Floristic Quality Index which looks at plant health. They know that when you look at plant health, you can determine the condition of a wetland, so you can understand the soils and the water quality that are tied with plants. Okay, so what she did is she showed that when you quantify the buffer, the maximum buffer would be a natural area of 100 meters, that’s the best score that you can get. As you reduce that buffer, you reduce the score, and that means you reduce the floristic quality, which means, in turn, you reduce the condition.

So that’s Wardrop et all 2007, and it will show you how to quantify the buffer and how important it is to the overall condition of the water body you’re shooting to protect.

Host: The Manatee County Commissioners tentatively scheduled to vote on the issue as early as next week on August 17.

This was Johannes Werner with WSLR News.


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