September 11, 2008

UF Lawyers Say State’s Fuzzy on Beach Building Their Study Asserts That the Process of Approving Permits is Inconsistent.


Florida's environmental agency uses fuzzy rules that can be politically manipulated to decide who can build on beaches around the state, say University of Florida lawyers calling for change.

That choice "occurs through an unknown calculus in the head of the permit reviewer," according to a report from the Levin College of Law Conservation Clinic, whose lawyers examined coastal development applications filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

That approach "creates ample space for the possibility of political considerations," they added.

Their criticism was part of a white paper on coastal protection financed by sales of the state's sea-turtle license plates. The report said natural erosion and rising sea levels are threatening the state's shorelines and can cause expensive damage if beach communities aren't better prepared.

"We seem to be building too close to the beaches and that threatens the continued existence of the beaches," said Thomas Ruppert, a conservation clinic lawyer and the report's lead author.

Agency managers are still looking through the 157-page report to decide which suggestions they could follow without changing state laws, said Dee Ann Miller, a department spokeswoman. She noted the state's administrative rules spell out subjects that must be considered in permits, including how a project would impact dunes, plants and sea turtles.

The report lists new steps that might help protect beaches and make it easier to adjust when parts of the oceanfront washes away. But the lawyers also said a straightforward, transparent way of deciding permits would help, especially if it followed a template that was comparable from one project to another.

To keep developers from building recklessly, the state requires special permits for construction beyond a boundary it calls the coastal construction control line. The rules cover a wide range of construction, from houses and condominiums to garages and bridges.

Hundreds of those projects are begun each year around the state, though the number has dropped in recent years.

The department's Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems is supposed to closely check those projects for risks from erosion and other shoreline problems.

But after reading state files on "well over 50" projects, Ruppert said, he and other lawyers couldn't tell how the department decided which projects to approve. It wasn't that the wrong developments were approved, he said, but that it wasn't clear why the state considered a particular project good or bad.

"It really felt like there's a lack of transparency. ... There just wasn't a good, consistent organization," he said.

Not everyone sees it that way.

"It's fairly clear. The rule is straightforward. You have to meet certain guidelines," said Kevin Partel, a St. Augustine-based consultant on coastal construction.

Factors like the location of other waterfront buildings, risks of erosion and the shapes and locations of dunes affect what kind of development the state will allow, said Partel, who once worked for state agency's predecessor, the defunct Department of Natural Resources.

The number of permits being sought is apparently falling, the lawyers said. More than 2,000 applications were filed between 1996 and 2000, they said, but a little more than 1,500 are expected between 2006 and 2010.

Despite that, Partel said getting projects approved seems harder now, because the best sites for development usually have been used already.

"The amount of erosion, the hot spots around the state, have become greater," he said, "and the development around the state has become greater."[email protected], (904) 359-4263

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