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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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The immense public value of wetlands - on private property or not

Wetlands matter, especially to all of us in Florida, which is worth remembering following the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. The Koontz case was one of several decisions of broad public importance the court announced at the end of June. Yet unlike the other decisions, the publicly important subject matter that gave rise to the case - wetlands protection - has received relatively little attention. In Koontz, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of a private property owner who challenged permit conditions the St. Johns River Water Management District proposed because the development Coy Koontz Sr. planned for his property would have impacted wetlands on his property. Law does not exist in the abstract, and the court used the "private property owner versus the government" convention to facilitate a complex discussion of constitutional law.
Missing from the discussion, however, was why the "government" - here, the water management district - was trying to be a good steward of Florida's wetlands. Wetlands are the salt marshes around Tampa Bay, the Brooker Creek Preserve headwaters north of Tampa, and many other magnificent coastal, inland and upland areas that make Florida a beautiful, healthy place. When you realize what a wetland really is - so much more than a swamp - the aesthetic value to all becomes clear. But when you realize how we all benefit from wetlands, their value becomes inestimable. First, wetlands recharge our water supply. Water accumulates in wetlands and gradually becomes the groundwater that we all depend on for the water we use every day. Second, wetlands clean our water. Wetlands receive and filter surface water runoff, removing nutrients and some pollutants. Try this: Place a wet cloth on the dinner table. Ask your son or daughter to spill their milk in the direction of the cloth, and watch as the wet(land) cloth soaks up the milk before it runs onto the floor. Third, wetlands lessen the likelihood of flooding and reduce the impact when floods occur. Notice what happens in densely developed, heavily paved-over areas during periods of intense rain. Asphalt and concrete are not sponges. Fourth, wetlands are moneymakers. The fish that a visitor to Florida catches tomorrow was feeding and growing in an estuary or among mangroves around the time the visitor was deciding how much money to spend on a future Florida vacation. These are among the reasons the water management districts impose conditions on development that impacts wetlands and why permission to develop is sometimes denied altogether. Wetlands might be on private property, but they have significant public benefits (including, by the way, to the property owner). The lawyers can read Koontz and should be able to recognize ways in which its application will be more limited than the raw outcome might portend. That's good, because all of us can look around our state and already recognize how vital wetlands are no matter who we are - private property owner, government regulator, Floridian. Christopher Hunter is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law in the Tampa area.
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