Paving Paradise

There is much upset this week over the county’s decision to allow Whole Foods Supermarket to purchase and pave over 4.5 acres of protected wetlands at University and Honore.  What isn’t widely known is that in exchange for that acreage, Whole Foods purchased 34.5 acres in Manatee in order to mitigate the environmental impact. This acreage is a beautiful piece of land made up of hammocks and wetlands along the Manatee River.  Although Whole Foods gave the property to Manatee County, it feeds into the same water basin as the Sarasota property they want to pave over. You should also know that Whole Foods was only required to purchase 8 acres in order for the sale to go through.

Purchasing land in one area in trade for another piece of land that would otherwise be off-limits is quite common. It is called Wetland Mitigation and is defined as “wetland enhancement, restoration, creation and/or preservation project that serves to offset unavoidable wetland impacts.” It is a federal requirement that the wetland be mitigated in the same “water basin” as the property they are looking to acquire. The property in question is located on the most southern property in the basin, so the only place mitigate was either way out east or in Manatee County.

It sounds wonderful. We give you 4.5 acres and you give us 34.5 acres. Who could complain?  However, what is wrong with this picture is, why did we have to go all the way out to Manatee County to find comparable land?  Gerri Swormstedt from the Sierra Club called it “death by a thousand stamps” in her testimony before the Board of County Commissioners. It’s really hard to argue for such a small parcel of land until you realize that it is increasingly becoming harder to find any land that fits that description.

We used to rely on the government with programs like Florida Forever at a state level and The Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program of Sarasota County at the local level to purchase lands that needed to be preserved from development. Sarasota County’s website state that “acquisition and protection of these lands ensures that their environmentally sensitive nature and habitats will be there for future generations.”  More often than not, this program reminds me of what it’s like to designate a “Canopy Road” or the “Grand Oak” protection—it’s protected until it’s not.

Organizations like the Audubon Society and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast are now turning to the strategy of purchasing the land for their foundations in order to protect them. They do this because they know it’s the only way to protect the land from our government. Every time a developer knocks on the dais, someone comes along to justify why we need to overlook the designation. It’s a tradeoff that we will live to regret.

Piece by piece, we are slowly killing the land that we all came here for. I haven’t seen a raccoon or possum in my yard in almost a decade. No longer am I serenaded by the frogs at night or by the birds in the morning. My son has never built a fort in the woods like those that were so common in my youth.

I am thrilled that we are saving 34.5 acres of wetland in Manatee County.  But we are selling Sarasota’s legacy off in the process.