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At a time when water quality should be at the forefront because of harmful algae blooms like this Lyngbya bloom in Anna Maria Sound, the current Manatee County Commission is going backward. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Reel Time: Former county commissioner challenges wetlands decision

By Rusty Chinnis

The decision by the Manatee County Commission to reduce local wetland buffers to Florida’s state minimum standards has been challenged by former county commissioner Joe McClash.

The decision, which commissioners said ended a policy that was a “taking of public property,” was approved in a 5-1 vote on Oct. 5 despite strong opposition from the citizens of Manatee County and a “no” vote from the Manatee County Planning Commission.

Commissioner George Kruse voted against the change.

The rules change allows construction to occur closer to wetlands and, despite the commission’s claim (since debunked) that the current rules negatively affect 66,000 property owners in Manatee County, only two people with ties to development interests spoke in favor of the change.

Previously, environmental groups would have immediately challenged the ruling. But such challenges have been severely discouraged by the Florida Legislature’s recent passage of Senate Bill 540, which would make litigants in a case pay all court costs if they lose. In the past, the prevailing party could ask for court costs, but this bill makes that automatic. The bill, in effect, limits public access to the courts.

According to McClash, “Challenging the elimination of our wetland policy by our county commissioners is a huge undertaking that needs community support. The decision is so wrong in many ways. There was no science to support the decision. The disrespect shown by the commissioners to the public at the meetings could only be described as surreal. The biggest reason is the unknown impacts on our coastal environment. We know certain trends are evident. Our water quality trend is not great; with excessive fish kills, excessive Lyngbya (poopy algae), and even people getting severe infections from swimming in our waters. We know the sea level is rising. We know wetland buffers, especially in the coastal areas, are critical to mangrove adaptation and the so-called “engineering solution” can’t replace the value of the current 50 feet of land required for mangroves to survive. Without mangroves, our whole coastal ecosystem collapses.

“I did not want to challenge the county’s action,” McClash continued. “However, the state changed the rules last year to require if you don’t win, you have to pay all the cost of the challenge. The environmental groups that normally challenge the absurd actions of the government are now having to make a financial decision. We have our local state representatives Will Robinson and Jim Boyd to thank for this favor to the developers. However, this decision by the county was so egregious it needed to be challenged. If our citizens can’t afford to challenge the wrong decisions of our government, then we become a dictatorship. The county’s decision to eliminate our wetland policies and wetland buffers was not done in the best interest of the public. It certainly was done in the best interest of the developers.”

McClash is to be applauded for this decision and this action must be supported by members of the public who understand the importance of protecting the natural environment that brought us here, who love to fish and who support the economy. Stay tuned for more information as this process unfolds. McClash can be reached at [email protected].