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Opposition mounts against wetlands reduction

When the Manatee County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 (Commissioner George Kruse voted no) to go forward with reducing wetland buffers in the county, the audience at the meeting reacted with an audible burst of anger. I was at that meeting and, after speaking in opposition to the measure and listening to a stream of three dozen citizens do the same, it was stunning and sad to experience the government overreach and lack of concern the commission displayed for the voters who elected them. It was clear that the passage of the ill-conceived, building-industry-backed measure was a foregone conclusion as little to no discussion except Commissioner Kruse’s well-reasoned objections was held. It was apparent that the six commissioners were waiting for the public comment to end so they could advance the measure.

Coming on the heels of the decision, Hurricane Idalia’s inundation of low-lying areas of the county and barrier islands highlighted the importance of wetlands and buffers not only for water quality but also for storm protection. The EPA’s document, “Wetlands: Protecting Life and Property from Flooding,” makes it clear that our coastal areas are particularly prone to flooding and storm damage and are in need of buffers.

“Wetlands in many locations play an important role in flood protection. Nowhere is this function more important than along coastal areas,” the document says. “Coastal areas are vulnerable to hurricanes and other powerful storms, and the flat coastal terrain means that land and property can be exposed to the full power of these storms. Preserving and reconstructing coastal marshes can help reduce storm damage. Coastal wetlands serve as storm surge protectors when hurricanes or tropical storms come ashore. In the Gulf Coast area, barrier islands, shoals, marshes, forested wetlands and other features of the coastal landscape can provide a significant and potentially sustainable buffer from wind-wave action and storm surge generated by tropical storms and hurricanes.”

As the date for the final decision, Oct. 5, draws closer, a groundswell of resistance is coming from some expected and unexpected groups. In just the last three weeks, Suncoast Waterkeeper Executive Director Abbey Tyrna has reported requests for presentations to address these concerns from homeowners’ associations, civic groups and even religious organizations. The Save Our Wetlands petition has garnered over 2,000 signatures. The children’s group, Kids for Clean Water, has conducted Zoom meetings to find ways to effectively address what they rightly consider a taking of their future and are organizing to get that message out to the public. There are also moves underway to address this egregious overreach at the ballot box, so expect to see challenges to the commissioners, who take their orders from developers who financed their campaigns instead of the citizens they swore to represent.

What makes this move so deceitful is the fact that prominent developers, who were unable to reduce buffers in lawsuits brought against the county, financed commissioners who are now doing their bidding. While they might win this battle, I’m 100% sure they will lose the war. If the citizens of Manatee County don’t wake up to this threat, generations of Manatee County citizens will suffer the consequences.

Make sure you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Write letters, call your commissioners, attend meetings and make sure you engage in enlightened self-interest at the ballot box.