DEP, St. Joe Co. Proposing Panhandle Wetlands Deal

Fri January 16, 2004 - Southeast Edition

PANAMA CITY, FL (AP) State environmental regulators and The St. Joe Co. are proposing an unprecedented wetlands plan that would free the development company from conventional permitting requirements in a 31,000-acre (12,545 ha) area of the Florida Panhandle.

Jacksonville-based St. Joe, the state’s largest private land owner, would get a general permit for the land in Bay and Walton counties that includes a proposed 4,000-acre (1,618 ha) site for a new airport, which has drawn opposition from a regional citizens group.

Individual construction projects would be reviewed for compliance with the permit and a related management plan. Existing procedures require a separate permit for each project.

St. Joe would be free to fill up to 20 percent of wetlands designated as “low quality” in each of the area’s 17 sub-basins. Wetlands classified “high quality,” however, could not be filled except to accommodate necessary road crossings up to 125 acres (50.6 ha) total.

The permit also would establish nine conservation units where development would be prohibited.

The state proposal is a companion to another general permit being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That permit would cover 47,500 acres (19,222 ha) including lands outside St. Joe ownership.

Mary Jean Yon, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Northwest District, said the proposal would result in fewer wetlands being lost to development and “will be applauded by generations yet to come.”

Opponents will have 14 days after the plan is advertised to register objections. Once the general permit is granted, individual projects could be challenged only on grounds of being out of compliance with the management agreement. As of presstime, the public meeting on the proposal had not been held but was planned for Monday, Jan. 12.

St. Joe spokesman Jerry Ray said the plan offers predictability and certainty the company would be unable to get through conventional permitting.

“Doing it this way, we preserve not only shareholder but also taxpayer resources,” Ray said.