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Wetlands expert suspended by florida dep after she refuses toapprove permit. - China GPRS Mobile Ph by fdhjkl rfghjtkl





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Wetlands expert suspended by florida dep after she refuses toapprove permit. - China GPRS Mobile Ph


 
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Florida's top state wetlands expert has been suspended after sherefused to issue a permit on a controversial project — onethat she said her boss was willing to bend the rules to approve. The project: turning a North Florida pine plantation into abusiness that attempts to make up for wetlands that are wiped outby new roads and development. At stake: millions of dollars inwetland "credits" that can be sold to government and developers. The problem, according to a May 9 memo from Department ofEnvironmental Protection wetlands expert Connie Bersok, is that theowners want the DEP to give them lots of wetland credits for landthat isn't wet.

After being told by Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn to ignore therules she had followed on other permits, Bersok wrote, "I herebystate my objection to the intended agency action and refusal torecommend this permit for issuance." Two days later, Bersok was suspended pending an investigation, herpersonnel file shows. She declined to comment for this articlewithout DEP permission. DEP officials would not allow a reporter tospeak with her. A spokeswoman would not discuss her case.

"It smells really bad to me," said Aliki Moncrief, a former DEPattorney who is now executive director of Environment Florida, anactivist group. The application that led to Bersok's suspension came from theHighlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, which has repeatedly tussled withpermitting officials. "They're scrappy, these guys," said Glenn Lowe, who lost his jobwith the St. Johns River Water Management District after he refusedto give Highlands Ranch what its owners wanted.

Former waterdistrict executive director Kirby Green said Lowe and otheremployees lost their jobs because Gov. Rick Scott's pro-businessadministration didn't like the way they treated Highlands Ranch. Highlands Ranch manager Marc El Hassan, a Jacksonville developer,said no one from his company complained about Bersok or the waterdistrict employees who were fired. Highlands Ranch is a wetlands mitigation bank.

It's supposed towork like this: A would-be banker buys land that used to be a swampand restores the wetlands. Regulators then calculate how many"credits" the banker has earned. The banker can sell those creditsto customers who need to make up for filling in a marsh or a swamp. "For every credit that's issued, somewhere else wetlands are beingdestroyed," explained Jeff Elledge, another water district employeewho tangled with Highlands Ranch and lost his job.

"If you givethem more credits than they're worth, then you end up with a netenvironmental loss." In a series of articles in 2006, the Times found serious problems with Florida's mitigation banks. Some gotmore than half of their wetland credits for land that was actuallydry. A 2007 study done for the DEP reported that fewer than half ofthe banks reviewed had achieved their restoration goals. But mitigation banking is still a big business. Wetland credits innortheast Florida have sold for up to $100,000 each, Lowe said.

Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank was created in 2008 when a privateequity firm named the Carlyle Group, with what the Washington Post called "a reputation of opaque, insider-power connections," formeda joint venture with a Jacksonville company, Hassan & LearAcquisitions. They spent $15 illion on a 1,575-acre pineplantation in Clay County next to Jennings State Forest. The mitigation bank application they filed with the water district— the first time El Hassan had tried his hand at the business— sought 688 credits. However, records show the bank would dolittle to restore wetlands beyond removing a road and taking outthe furrows among the pines.

Lowe's agency approved a permit with only 193 credits, a differenceworth millions. So, in 2010, the bank's owners took the unusualstep of filing a legal challenge to their own permit. They lost.They tried getting the Legislature to change the rules. Thatfailed, too.

But then the DEP's Littlejohn — the son of Florida Chamber ofCommerce lobbyist Chuck Littlejohn, who has negotiated with the DEPon wetland issues — issued a memo ordering a change in theway credits were calculated. The first draft, Littlejohn said, waswritten for him by Eric T. Olsen, the attorney for Highlands Ranch,"who shared a list of concerns with me early on." The Littlejohn memo prompted Highlands Ranch to seek a new permit,"hoping we would receive a better outcome for the whole site," ElHassan said. With what El Hassan said were only minor changes to its plan,Highlands Ranch applied to the DEP for a permit that would yieldmore credits — 424 of them "with the vast majority of thatincrease given to the upland communities," Bersok wrote.

In reviewing this new application, Littlejohn said he was hearing"radically different opinions" from Bersok, DEP's top wetlandsexpert, and from Highland Ranch's expert, Mike Dennis, president ofBreedlove, Dennis & Associates. "I don't speak wetlands ecologist," said Littlejohn, who was aconsulting engineer before joining the DEP a year ago. While Bersokhas a lot of experience, he said, "I've known Mike for a longtime." And when he thought about what Dennis told him, "it madesense." So Littlejohn told Bersok that instead of requiring detailed plansfor how Highlands Ranch would help the environment, he wanted herto set goals for the bank's progress. He called it a "performance-based pilot" for all future banks, aconcept that he said was approved by DEP Secretary HerschelVinyard.

Bersok wrote that that approach violates a state law that requires"a reasonable assurance" that a mitigation plan will work beforeany permit is issued. And giving too much credit for dry land, shesaid, "could not be ecologically supported." She refused to goalong and was suspended. Last year, Bersok's supervisor wrote in an evaluation that Bersok"is a model representative for the department" who always "strivesfor fairness." Despite Bersok's suspension, El Hassan said he's hopeful the permitwill be issued soon — this time with the number of creditsthe owners need to make the bank work financially. "Obviously, it's been longer and harder for us than we would haveliked it to be," he said.

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. CraigPittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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