July 3, 2008

FWC Officer: Some Developers Bulldozing Over Turtles

SEBRING -- It's a frequent situation for developers in Highlands County. They have a property more than two acres in size that they want to develop, so they need to clear it. Theoretically, they're supposed to complete an environmental impact report, have the property inspected to make sure there are no sensitive natural resources or protected wildlife there.

According to multiple officials, however, that's not happening in some cases. Instead, a loophole in the county's law allows those developers to develop just less than two acres at a time, allowing them to bypass the environmental inspections and requiring only a simple permit from the county.

Ultimately, this allows them to get away with bulldozing over gopher tortoises and other threatened animals since the state cannot perform inspections.

"When we issue a permit, there's no requirement for them to check for resources," county planner Zane Thomas said. "A lot of gopher tortoises are disappearing that way."

At a Natural Resources Advisory Commission meeting last Wednesday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Erica Zimmerman said she has had numerous complaints for more than a year concerning developers that are allegedly bulldozing over gopher tortoises while clearing their properties.

"By the time I get there or another officer gets there, they've been destroyed," Zimmerman told the advisory board.

Outside the meeting, Zimmerman said she was aware of at least another county that had a similar situation.

Board member Jim Wohl said that previously, some developers would apply for what was called an "Incidental Take Permit," which basically allowed them to kill or disturb protected wildlife such as tortoises if tortoise habitat elsewhere is left undisturbed. The permits drew harsh public reactions toward the developer in many cases and FWC stopped giving them last year.

Currently, if there are five or fewer tortoises on the developer's property, they can get a permit to relocate them without paying any fees. If there are more tortoises involved, the developer will end up owing a fee and may also have to hire a consultant to trap them and figure out where to put the tortoises.

So instead, Zimmerman alleged, they're using the two-acre loophole to speed up the development, bypass the environmental survey and sidestep that extra work.

"Once I get on the site there's almost nothing I can do ... it seems like there should be something else in place," she said.

The county, including NRAC, had been considering land clearing penalties and tighter environmental mitigation rules for months in order to address the loophole, Thomas said.

NRAC Chairman Mike Waldron said Tuesday that NRAC was working on doubling illegal land clearing fines several months ago. He deferred further questions on the land clearing penalty proposals to advisory commissioner Reed Bowman. Bowman, who was not at last Wednesday's meeting, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Reporter Doug Carman can be reached at 386-5838 or [email protected]


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