The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

With Fedsâ€TM Help, Florida Govt, Firms Look to Pave Wetlands

by Michelle Chen

Once again, the elaborate government system in place to protect ecologically critical areas of the country is swinging into action… to feed one such area to real-estate developers bent on airport construction.

Sept. 20, 2006 – Vast stretches of wetlands in the Florida Panhandle may soon yield to airstrips and office buildings, as the state moves to build up an area that environmentalists want to shield from commercial encroachment.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved a proposal to construct a new 4,000-acre airport site in northwest Florida, opening up wetlands in Bay County to developers.

Leading the opposition to the $300 million plan, the Natural Resources Defense Council decried the FAA’s approval as the latest example of state regulators turning a blind eye to environmental assault by developers. Throughout the state, environmental groups are waging a broader campaign against construction interests that are impinging on sensitive habitats.

The FAA and developers say the plan is necessary to accommodate increasing air traffic. It would relocate Panama City’s airport to a new, expanded site about 30 miles outside the city. The project features major industry players; Bechtel Corporation is the leading design firm. The real-estate giant St. Joe Company a major donor to the state’s Republican Party, is offering 4,000 acres for the project as an investment.

The initial airport construction would impact about 2,000 acres of wetlands, according to the FAA’s decision document. Eventually, development on the site and surrounding areas could damage more than 9,000 acres of wetlands in total and potentially disrupt more than 20,000 linear feet of streams, the agency reported.

Critics say development strips away natural protections against storms by depleting wetlands, and simultaneously draws more people into storm-prone areas.

Florida’s wetlands host a diverse range of species including Florida black bears, sea turtles, alligators and native birds, while also serving as buffer zones that protect against coastal flooding.

Critics of the breakneck development along Florida’s coastline say the threat is two-fold: development strips away natural protections against storms by depleting wetlands, and simultaneously draws more people into storm-prone areas.

Although the plan still requires a Clean Water Act permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the state is already working on expanding highway access to the site and has allocated $40 million in transportation-development funds for the project for fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), called the airport a "boondoggle" aimed at pumping up St. Joe’s profits "by creating demand for their properties that otherwise wouldn’t exist."

"These are areas that really are not supposed to be developed unless there’s absolutely no alternative," she told The NewStandard. "There’s a lot of pressure down there to develop in these areas that are predominantly wetlands."

According to the FAA’s environmental analysis, the proposed wetlands construction "would likely attract general aviation, retail/commercial, office, and industrial tenants," which could help foster "a new center of economic activity."

Environmentalists call the approval of the construction project the latest example of state regulators turning a blind eye to environmental assault by developers.

The agency claims the project’s ecological and social impacts would be minimal, and that city development authorities would offset environmental damage by investing in local preservation projects.

But environmentalists say the FAA, the Corps of Engineers and other agencies are helping to grease a corporate-welfare project.

In public comments filed in July, the NRDC and other environmental groups questioned whether the new airport was really necessary, arguing that due to the volatility of the airline industry since 2001, future air traffic might fall far short of projected growth.

The main problem, the groups say, is that the FAA’s environmental analysis focused tightly on the immediate impacts of construction. Environmentalists are concerned that regulatory authorities have not comprehensively considered the long-term consequences, including the anticipated redevelopment of the original airport site. Proposals to further commercialize the old site include potentially disruptive projects like boating docks and a marina.

The struggle to protect Florida’s wetlands has recently led environmentalists to court to push for tighter regulatory enforcement. Last year, in response to a lawsuit filed by the NRDC and Sierra Club, a Florida district court suspended a sweeping permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have exempted St. Joe from regular permitting requirements and expedited construction in Walton and Bay counties.

The plan has also raised questions about dangers that development poses to humans. The FAA acknowledged in its decision that the project "would result in significant encroachment on a floodplain." Though the agency promised to take measures to "minimize harm," it asserted there is "no practical alternative" to the building plan.

But Ann Hauck, co-founder of the state coalition Council of Civic Associations, said the alternative would simply be not planting properties in flood-prone areas, pointing to what she saw as a pattern of overly aggressive development throughout the state. "It’s totally irresponsible," she said of the proposed construction. "We do not learn our lesson about these things."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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