Commerce Center Foes Fret at Rule

Article excerpt

Byline: GREGORY RICHARDS

The St. Johns River Water Management District's Governing Board will consider next week whether to allow 167 acres of wetlands to be destroyed for the construction of the Freedom Commerce Centre at Baymeadows Road and Interstate 95.

But opponents of the project -- which has escalated into one of the First Coast's biggest environmental battles -- say there haven't been enough opportunities for people to comment to the nine-member board, and they say the way the Tuesday, Sept. 13, meeting has been planned will further restrict comment. The board as a whole will hear remarks on the project for the first time when it meets for the vote.

"I've been going down to the district [meetings] for I'd say close to 20 years," said Linda Bremer, an official with the Sierra Club's Northeast Florida chapter. "It's very rare to see the public so constrained and censored in terms of what they can say and who can say it."

However, the district -- the state agency charged with overseeing water resources from Nassau County south to Indian River County -- says it's obeying strict legal rules that must be followed because the district's staff recommendation to grant the permit was challenged in court by the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper. An administrative law judge affirmed that decision Aug. 5, and the board's vote is the final step in the judicial process.

The Sierra Club, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and 12 other community and environmental groups are fighting to prevent the water management district from issuing a permit for the wetlands' destruction, saying the property has great ecological value because it contains the headwaters for two main tributaries of the St. Johns River, the Pottsburg and Julington creeks.

Bremer and Neil Armingeon, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, are upset that the only public comment allowed during the meeting will be from those "who are not members of a company or organization that is a party to this case," according to a memo prepared by Stanley Niego, one of the district's attorneys.

That means none of either the Sierra Club's 1,700 Northeast Florida members or the Riverkeeper's 800 members can speak during the public comment session, nor can anyone with ties to the Goodman Co., the West Palm Beach-based firm that wants to develop the forested tract into a complex of stores and offices.

"Suppose you're a political leader or a member of a CPAC [Citizens Planning Advisory Committee] and you're a member of Riverkeeper or Sierra Club -- you can't speak. That's unbelievable," Bremer said.

Riverkeeper attorney Kenneth Wright said in his 14 years of practicing law he's never encountered such a restriction, even with the water management district.

Niego, in an interview, defended the stipulation, saying the district is simply following the state's administrative procedure law to ensure both sides have the same amount of time before the board.

However, there is an exception to this rule, he said. Officials from both sides will have 20 minutes to argue their case before the board as part of the proceedings. So either party could set aside some of its 20 minutes for comment from its members.

Additionally, opponents of the project say they're taken aback by threats from the district of fines of up to $500 or other "disciplinary action" if they attempt to contact a member of the board before the meeting. …