(Source: Kevin Spear Orlando Sentinel (MCT) — Florida environmental officials have approved a controversial “land bank” business that would generate profits by replacing wetlands paved over by developers, even though one of their own experts warned earlier this year that the project’s environmental value was inflated and could lead to a net loss of wetlands statewide.
On Friday, the Florida Department of Environmental Project signed off on a request by backers of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank in Clay County to increase the property’s potential value to nearly double what other state officials and a state judge previously had determined it to be worth.
Agency officials said their decision was justified because they consider Highlands Ranch a pilot project that has helped them clarify certain wetlands rules. They said the project would be subject to standards more stringent than those ordinarily applied to such mitigation banks. Also, according to DEP documents, its revenue would be based on verified environmental restoration on the property, rather than written restoration milestones, as has often been the case with wetlands-mitigation projects in the past.
“They are going to have to show us the ecological result instead of just doing a list of activities,” said Tim Rach, DEP’s bureau chief for submerged lands and environmental resources. For example, “We’re going to be looking at the height of trees, and we are going to be looking at the number of trees and the stage and development of the trees.”
Connie Bersok, a career DEP staffer and one of the agency’s top wetlands experts, was suspended in May after refusing to recommend that the Highlands Ranch project be approved. She warned it could set a harmful precedent.
DEP officials said Bersok was relieved of duty not as a result of that memo but because a supervisor accused her of failing to report for work one day (when Bersok was out of town, conducting an agency workshop) and of leaking information about the project to people outside the agency.
Bersok, described in her performance evaluations as a “a model representative of the Department,” was cleared of those charges and allowed to return to work at the DEP — though not on the Highlands Ranch proposal. The agency has not allowed her to speak to the Orlando Sentinel about the matter.
The 1,575 acres of rural land in Clay County that comprise Highlands Ranch were acquired in 2008 by investors who paid $15 million for 1,800 acres altogether, according to state records.
Prior to the purchase, the project was touted as having a potential value of $116 million in a summary sent by a Jacksonville company to a private-equity firm, the Carlyle Group, that became a key backer of the undertaking, according to court documents.
Mitigation banks are rural properties that undergo environmental-restoration work to compensate for developments that destroy wetlands elsewhere. State environmental officials determine the value of a bank by calculating the number of wetland-destruction credits its owner can sell on the open market to residential, commercial or industrial developers.
The Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions Ltd., and the Carlyle Group initially asked that Highlands Ranch be valued at 688 credits. But several state reviews and a review by a state administrative law judge concluded the property had a value closer to 200 credits.
Friday’s decision by the DEP gives the project 425 credits.
Rach said the Highlands Ranch proposal had given his agency an opportunity to reform its rules for mitigation banks during a slow period for real-estate development in Florida.
“It seemed like a good time to start working on mitigation banks, so that they are all online and ready to go when development picks up,” he said.
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