Proposed Manatee Speed Zones FlaglerLive | June 8, 2011 Rules are made to be compromised. (Fish and Wildlife Commission)
Flagler County has no manatee-protection plan. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has been looking to develop one. That usually means speed zones on the Intracoastal Waterway. Boaters don't like speed zones. But some sort of plan looked inevitable once the commission started working on a protection plan. A local advisory committee was named in accordance with law to react to the state's plan. Fish and Wildlife's initial proposal would have created speed zones along 6.7 miles of the Intracoastal's 18- mile Flagler portion. Facing stiff opposition from local politicians, including the full weight of the Flagler County Commission--whose staff made no bones about whose sides it was on: the boaters--and a majority of the members of the local rules review committee, Fish and Wildlife compromised down to 3.8 miles of speed zones, and a much narrower manatee season when the speed zones are in effect.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board heard the compromise today at its meeting in St. Augustine--and rejected it. The seven-member board directed its staff to go back to the negotiating table(or the drawing board) and compromise again with boating advocates. "This is not uncommon, that's why we have these meetings," Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joy Hill said. "They want our folks to go back out and work more with the county, with the stakeholders."
The outcome is unexpected, however. The commission staff's recommendations were expected to hold sway at today's meeting, particularly in light of the compromises the recommendations represented. Had the commission accepted the recommendations, they would have triggered public hearings and final approval at the commission's November meeting in Naples. Instead, the commission now expects to have a reworked plan, presumably more in favor of Flagler County's position than the commission's own staff, to be presented at that November meeting.
For Flagler, it is only the latest in an impressive string of victories against state projects (or presumptions) planned for the county. In April, the county's joint governments beat back a State Department of Transportation plan to build a sea wall in Flagler Beach. Earlier this year, a similar joint government effort beat back a DOT plan to build a sizeable weigh station on U.S. 1, near Royal Palm Parkway in Palm Coast.
On Tuesday, the Palm Coast City Council celebrated beating back objections by the Department of Community Affairs to two massive new developments on the west side of the city. The county had not expected to prevail over Fish and Wildlife. County commissioners spoke openly of the commission's likelihood of doing what its staff would recommend.
The Flagler County administration tried to win over the Flagler Beach Commission to its case, hurriedly asking for--and being granted--a special meeting of the city commission on Monday to win approval of a resolution supporting the county's position. The county didn't get it.
Commissioners resented the last-minute tactic and tabled the matter, though as it turned out, the county got much of its way with the wildlife commission anyway.
Manatee advocates saw Wednesday's action as a clear setback. "It's really preposterous the level that FWC was willing to go to to try to accommodate the county," Katie Tripp, the Save the Manatee Club's director of science and conservation, said. "I'm pretty disappointed in the FWCV commissioners." Tripp pointed to a sharp reversal during the meeting when, earlier, on another issue, commissioners made a point of standing by staff recommendations, only to reverse course on the manatee matter. "Then manatee staff get up and present this proposal and they completely disrespect them," Tripp said.
Tripp was one of nine people who spoke in favor of the commission staff's recommendations (though at least two had favored adopting the staff's original recommendation, for 6.7 miles of speed zones, not the latter, watered down version). Others included Palm Coast's Jane Culpepper and Don White of the Environmental Council of Volusia and Flagler counties. The county countered with its attorney (Al Hadeed), Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, himself a boater, Doug Baxter, who heads the local chamber of commerce, and Richard McCleery, also a boater. The Flagler portion of the meeting took place in the middle of the afternoon, lasting about an hour.
(The manatee rule presentation is available here. The two-day meeting is being held at the Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village in St. Augustine.) Netts welcomed the outcome. "It's a compromise, so that's probably a good thing," he said, though he stressed that he was by no means opposed to speed zones. "I'm not so much interested in whittling down" the proposed speed zones further, he said, "but I really like what we call the split channel." The county is proposing to split various segments of the Intracoastal into slow zones on one side and 25 to 30 miles per hour zones in the other, essentially halving any risk to manatees. The county has been arguing all along that one manatee death per year (the average recorded by Fish and Wildlife data) does not warrant drastic action on the Intracoastal, especially in light of a manatee population that's returned to much healthier levels than where it was 20 years ago.
Netts doesn't credit the speed zones for that. "Coincidence is not cause and effect," he said. "The manatee population could have increased totally independent of the speed zone."