Wakulla County Commissioners Repeal Wetlands Ordinance

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Updated By: Kevin Clark
July 14, 2014 11pm

Wakulla County Commissioners repealed the ordinance that prevents development within a 75-foot buffer of county wetlands.

The controversial 4-1 decision came after several citizens spoke, most of them against the commissioners' decision.

Monday night was the final public hearing before citizens will be able to vote for the ordinance should they want it to return in November.

Most citizens were not pleased, saying the commissioners aren't responding to their interests. Arguments for keeping the buffer included cleaner water, reduced flood rates, and wildlife protection, which would help fisherman.

Commissioner Howard Kessler argued that the state protection is unreliable and only the county can properly protect the wetlands.

But among commissioners, Kessler was in the minority.

Commissioners say one of the biggest reasons for the repeal is that it was nearly impossible to develop land with the buffer, and that it was just another layer of government regulations.

Most citizens at the meeting weren't happy with the outcome, but they'll have a chance to bring it back in November.

Updated By: Natalie Rubino
May 5, 2014, 6pm

Wakulla County Commissioners will schedule a public hearing tonight regarding the county's wetlands.

It follows a successful attempt by the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance putting a referendum on November's ballot protecting the wetlands.

This issue dates back to February when the Board passed the removal of Chapter 32 of the Wakulla Wetlands Ordinance that requires a 75 ft. buffer of land between the wetlands.

In April, the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance Committee got enough signature to put a referendum on the November ballot. The referendum would require the Board to pass unanimously any changes they wish to make to the ordinance or to send those changes to the ballot and allow voters to decide.

The issue tonight is: What's going to happen to this ordinance between now and November?

The Wakulla Wetlands Alliance gave the Board options they're expected to discuss tonight:

1.) Leave the ordinance as is until November, including the removal of the 75 ft. barrier;

2.) Schedule public hearings from now until November with any changes they wish to make.

By: Bailey Myers
March 17th, 2014

Tallahassee FL- The debate is over the Wetlands Ordinance currently in place in the county. Ever since the County Commission voted to eliminate it, an organization called the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance formed to protect it. Now, months after this conversation started the Commission faces a major decision. To keep the ordinance or allow the people to vote.

"We are here because this board said we aren't waiting... We want to throw out what previous boards have done," explained Commissioner Howard Kessler.

A motion to throw out the Wakulla Wetlands Ordinance which currently protects the 75 feet area surrounding the protected wetlands.

"No our rules are tighter we want more protection. We all realize that more buffer provides more protection that's just a logical thing, but is it required," one commissioner asked.

The majority of the commissioners say this wetlands ordinance is excessive, and takes away property rights. After the majority voted to get rid of this ordinance, several concerned citizens formed the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance in hopes of protecting the ordinance. They collected hundreds of petition signatures demanding this issue be moved onto the November ballot. Now the County Commission has one last chance to keep this ordinance, or it gets put into the people's hands.

Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas, "Basically it comes down to what our citizens want. If they vote yes or they vote no-- we are going to have to live with that decision."

Tonight the commission unanimously agreed to move forward and have a public hearing on April Seventh. That is when the Commission will make their decision to accept this ordinance or they will have to put it on the November ballot. If the people vote to keep the ordinance the commission will not be allowed to change it unless the entire commission agrees on a change.

News Release: Wakulla Wetlands Alliance
Updated: February 27, 2014, 4pm

In a history-making moment, the Wakulla County Supervisor of Elections certified Thursday that the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance (WWA) submitted the required number of valid petitions to place protection of Wakulla’s wetlands on the November 2014 ballot.

In a two-week time span, the three-person Elections Office staff reviewed 5,785 petitions submitted by the WWA and validated 5,553 of them. The number of petitions required for placing the wetlands issue on the ballot is 5,550 – an extraordinarily high number considering the low population and rural nature of Wakulla County.

“It’s done,” said Supervisor of Elections Buddy Wells. “I commend the staff and the Alliance; they worked hard.”

Even though Wakulla County is the smallest of Florida’s charter counties, its requirement for initiative petitions is the highest: more than 30 percent of registered voters in each of five districts. Other charter counties require signatures from 10 percent of the voters registered in the last general election.

“Our numbers show an overwhelming support from Wakulla County for having the right to vote on the wetlands law, and undeniable support for protecting our wetlands,” said Victor Lambou, WWA president. “We also had a battalion of volunteers working together to reach a goal that will protect wetlands and our county’s future.”

The WWA has an additional 673 petitions and more coming in each day.

The next step for the wetlands protection issue is in the hands of the Wakulla County Board of Commissioners. Sixty days after receiving notice from the Supervisor of Elections that the WWA has submitted the required number of valid wetland petitions, the commissioners are required to hold a public hearing on the wetlands protection, and they can, at that time, adopt the referendum as law. If they refuse to make the wetlands proposal law, 45 days after the rejection, the referendum goes to the ballot for a vote in November.

Four of the commissioners removed wetland protection from the county Comprehensive Plan on Feb.18, and have steadfastly refused to put the wetlands issue on the ballot.

“Our commissioners can easily adopt the wetlands protection that has been law since 2006, but if a majority of commissioners remain committed to removing the county’s protections, the wetlands issue will appear on the ballot under our county’s charter,” said Wakulla County Commissioner Howard Kessler.

If approved by voters this fall, the county’s present wetlands law would stay in place and could only be changed or removed by a referendum or unanimous vote of the five commissioners.

Eugene Watkins, a volunteer petition drive organizer, was elated with the news of the petition certification and the fast work of the Elections Office. Watkins gathered more than 1,300 petitions despite a variety of unfavorable conditions, such as barking and biting dogs, rain, freezing wind, mud and hard-to-reach homes.

“You can tell your grandchildren about this one day,” Watkins said in an email announcing the petition certification.

News Release: Wakulla Wetlands Alliance

Wakulla, Fla. -- The Wakulla County Supervisor of Elections completed counting petitions presented by the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance this morning.

The Supervisor of Elections has certified that the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance has obtained the required number of valid signed petitions.

There will be a press release from the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance later today.

By: Bailey Myers
February 18th, 2014

Tallahassee FL- Wetlands in an area county may have just gotten more protection-- or less, depending on how you look at it. Thousands of people have signed a petition in favor of residents voting on what happens with a wetlands ordinance.

With a box full of signed petitions, the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance Representatives presented what it believes is the right amount of signatures to get the The Wetlands Ordinance on the November Ballot.

After months of debate, the Wakulla County Commission decided Tuesday to take steps to remove the Wetlands Ordinance. "The time for compromise is gone. That was months ago. The choice I am presented with right now is get rid of all of it or keep it the way it is. And I am definitely not going to keep it the way it is," said Commissioner Randy Merritt during the meeting.

Right now, the Ordinance in place protects 75 feet surrounding the protected wetlands area. Certain parts of that ordinance restrict construction or development in those parts. That's why commissioners say they have pushed for property rights by taking steps to remove it.

Despite the decision by the commissioners, The Wakulla Wetlands Alliance says they are making moves to get the people's voices heard.
"Listen to the people what they say out there," said Victor Lambou one of the members of the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance.

The organization spent months collecting signatures in order to let the people decide what they want to do about the ordinance by voting to keep it in place or to remove it.

"It feels like the population is behind us and understands" Lambou said.

During tonight's meeting there were people opposed to the ordinance-- saying they couldn't build on their property because of it and the Department of Environmental Protection already does enough to protect the wetlands. The Wakulla Wetlands Alliance told us they just want the people of the county to be able to vote on it, and they believe they will vote to keep it in place.

Updated By: Bailey Myers

February 18, 2014, 5:15pm

"Let the people vote" - That's what thousands are saying to County Commissioners down in Wakulla, all because they want a say in their wetlands ordinance.

It's a debate which has been heated from the moment Wakulla County Commissioners began discussing the possible removal of their wetlands ordinance.

For a brief background look, this ordinance protects the 75-feet area surrounding the wetlands.

Commissioners believe it violates property rights while those for it say it protects Wakulla's golden goose, the wetlands.

Today the Wakulla Wetlands Alliance turned in thousands of signed petitions as part of their movement to let the people of this county vote on it in November.

Meanwhile however the Commission will be taking big steps tonight to remove that ordinance altogether.

More information will be available on this hot button issue tonight at 11.

News Release: Wakulla Wetlands Alliance

The Wakulla Wetlands Alliance (WWA) has beaten a March 3 deadline by collecting more initiative petitions than required by law to put wetlands protection on the November 2014 ballot.

Since the petition drive’s kick-off on Oct. 17, more than 6,000 people in Wakulla County have signed petitions, hundreds more than the 5,550 petitions required to put wetlands protection on the ballot.

“The people have spoken loudly and clearly in saying they want a voice in deciding how our county protects its wetlands,” said Victor Lambou, president of the WWA. “We are extremely proud that the registered voters of Wakulla County overwhelmingly support putting wetlands protection on the ballot, especially since the number required is three times higher than any other charter county in Florida.”

WWA members submitted 500 petitions last week and will have delivered more than half the required number on Tuesday to the Supervisor of Elections for verification. To be verified, petitions must be signed by registered Wakulla County voters.

When the WWA meets the goal of 5,550 verified petitions, voters will be able to decide if they want to maintain wetlands protection that four Wakulla County commissioners are poised to remove despite recommendations from three state agencies that the protections are vital and should remain in place.

“Wetlands are important state resources that serve valuable functions,” said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in a December letter recommending continued protection of Wakulla County’s wetlands.

Howard Kessler, the lone commissioner opposing the removal of wetlands protection, said that support for the petition drive demonstrates the will of the people in Wakulla County.

“The people of Wakulla County know how important our wetlands are to our tourism economy, our water quality, our flood control – and flood insurance rates- and enjoying our lives in one of the most diverse eco-systems in the nation,” Kessler said.

The county’s Comprehensive Plan has provided protection for wetlands since 1995, and current Wakulla County wetland protections were adopted unanimously by commissioners in 2006, and, again, in 2010.

Judith Harriss, a door-to-door volunteer in Wakulla County’s District 5, was struck by the willingness of registered voters to sign petitions.

“I talked with hundreds of people as we knocked on neighborhood doors, and was deeply gratified with the eagerness of the people I met to sign petitions protecting our wetlands,” Harriss said. “I was also surprised by the number of people who understood the issue.”

The WWA plans to continue its petition drive until the March 3 deadline when Supervisor of Elections Buddy Wells will verify them. If the WWA falls short of getting signed petitions for 30 percent of the registered voters from each district in the county, the group will have 30 days to make-up the shortfall.

“We know some petitions will be rejected, so we want to be overly productive in our drive,” Lambou said. “In addition, we want to send a message to commissioners that Wakulla County voters support the local protection of our wetlands.”

Wakulla County registered voters who want to sign petitions may download them at www.wakullawetlands.com, request them at wakullawetlandsalliance@gmail.com, or call the WWA at 713-0093. WWA’s mailing address is Wakulla Wetlands Alliance, P.O. Box 427, Crawfordville FL 32326.

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