River gets reprieve as legislation left alone

As suspicious environmentalists looked on, the Seminole County Commission on Tuesday backed away from a planned effort that could have undermined the Wekiva River Protection Act.

"Without the considerable endorsement of the environmental community, then I move we drop this," said Commissioner Randy Morris. "We should not be fighting for something when nobody's with us."

And indeed nobody was. A letter sent Monday by Keith Schue of the Sierra Club of Central Florida, and signed by the heads of several environmental groups, spelled out their concerns: "In our opinion," it said in part, "this legislative initiative has been put forth not to enhance environmental protection, but rather as a vehicle driven by special interests to weaken existing Wekiva legislation, increase development densities, and move the boundaries of the Wekiva Protection Area."

The commissioners denied any dark intentions. But environmentalists said Seminole officials had kept them in the dark, then tried to slide the waterway legislation through the process.

The item in question was obscure: Buried deep in the meeting's agenda was a small sub item to "approve the `county's` 1999 Legislative Program." Within that 55-page document was a draft bill for the "Wekiva River Protection Act II," which would establish a multijurisdictional study of the river basin with a five-year review. The bill also would seek amendments to the existing law, to do things like ban personal watercraft and establish a five-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Environmentalists say the Jet-Ski ban and lower speed limit are fine, but they don't require a revision to the law. And they say the Seminole County proposal could open up the law to other changes.

Seminole County recently was chastised by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) for approving dense development on land theoretically protected by the Wekiva River Protection Act. Last week DCA pronounced Seminole's long-term growth plan for its section of the 19,000-acre protection area too intensive. That plan would allow a density of about three homes per acre.

Although the 1988 law seeks to limit development near the river to that of "rural character," it doesn't define that phrase. Instead, developers and the state haggle over the meaning of the term.

By moving the item further down the county's priority list, commissioners gave environmentalists the impression the issue would not be on the table when the commission meets Jan. 14 with the county's legislative delegation. It should remain a dead issue until county officials and environmentalists confer.

But Schue is still wary.

"At this point," he says, "we have no choice but to accept the statements of the board at face value -- that they won't submit legislation without our agreement or our consent."