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Wetland protection poised to shift from Corps of Engineers to Florida DEP

Whom would you rather have in charge of protecting Florida's wetlands: the state or the feds?

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign recently approved legislation to shift responsibility for issuing permits for development on wetlands from the Army Corps of Engineers to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The proposed change has been lauded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities and Associated Industries of Florida as a way to streamline an often costly and time-consuming stumbling block to development.

"The less we deal with the feds the better," said Joseph A. Catrambone, president and CEO of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce. "I'm a big fan of home rule. Taking something out of the feds' hands and giving it to the state isn't exactly home rule, it's a start. The more locally these decisions can be made, the better."

The move has been criticized by a number of environmental groups, who see it as removing one more layer of protection for the environmentally vital wetlands.

"This is one of many terrible anti-environmental bills passed this legislative session," said Richard Baker, head of the Pelican Island Audubon chapter in Indian River County. "There are exceptions, but I'm a fan of keeping environmental rules at the highest governmental level possible as they are less likely to be influenced by local and state political payoffs and special interest groups."

Currently, developers have to get both state and federal "dredge and fill" permits before they can build on wetlands, which play an important role in cleaning water before it reaches estuaries, such as the Indian River Lagoon.

With its staff shrunk by more than 600 employees, from about 3,500 to 2,900 since Scott took office in 2011, DEP doesn't have the personnel to take on the new responsibilities, said Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director of Audubon Florida.

The DEP's 400-plus staffers who work in permitting can handle the "slight workload increase," said Communications Director Lauren Engel.

The agency's existing permit program already is "more expansive" than the Corps', Engel said in an email, "and the vast majority of these programs’ requirements overlap."

DEP reported reviewing more than 7,300 state permits during a budget year that ended in 2016.