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Political interference alleged in Oslo Boat Ramp approval

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — On the eve of a dramatic hearing that will decide the fate of the controversial Oslo Road Boat Ramp expansion project, Richard Baker, president of Pelican Island Audubon Society, is alleging Congressman Bill Posey exerted undue political influence on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to get the county’s plan approved.

Lange Sykes, president of the Treasure Coast chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a 20,000-member organization of environmentally minded fishermen, says the same thing.

Posey’s 2012 intervention threatened to become a campaign issue when his then Democratic opponent, Corry Westbook, wrote in an April 27 Facebook post that Posey “sent his chief of staff from Washington, DC, to Vero Beach to successfully pressure the Fish and Wildlife to overturn its 2011 denial of the permit based on threats to manatees. The expansion even goes against the county’s own Manatee Protection Plan, despite 2013 being a record year for manatee deaths locally.”

Baker and Sykes are confirmed opponents of the county’s plans to dredge seagrass beds and fill mangrove swamps to open the way for larger boats at the Oslo Ramp, which is located in the midst of an aquatic preserve surrounded by critically important game-fish nurseries and manatee grazing areas. Westbrook was trying to take Posey’s seat before dropping out of the race after failing to meet a filing deadline.

Posey press secretary George Cecala said last year the congressman did not pressure federal or state agencies. Cecala didn’t deny a meeting took place, but said it was only to “facilitate communication” between agency and county officials, but a review of public documents lends credence to Baker’s assertion of interference in the regulatory process.

Throughout 2010 and 2011 USFWS, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly denied the county’s applications for permits needed to proceed with the project on the grounds it violated Federal law and would cause environmental harm. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission also weighed in against the plan.

USFWS advises the Corps on environmental matters. In a lengthy June 29, 2011, letter the Service gave the Corps a laundry list of specific reasons why the boat ramp project should be rejected.

According to the Service, the “proposal was reasonably certain to result in the take (death) of manatees due to the proposal’s inconsistency with the [county’s own] Manatee Protection Plan.”

The letter goes on to state that ramp expansion would impact more wetland acreage than the county claimed; that the plan did not adhere to federal guidelines for avoiding impact to wetlands; that it would attract bigger boats traveling at higher speeds, increasing danger to manatees and other wildlife; that proposed dredging would harm seagrass; that the proposal contained inaccurate information; and that no details were provided about how a slow speed limit would be enforced.

Two months later the Corps informed the county its permit was being denied for several reasons including that the project would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The August 26 letter further states “the denial pursuant to the incidental take of manatees is not appealable.”

In other words, the project was dead.

But then, somehow, after a call from Posey’s office, it was alive again.

A July 13, 2012 letter from Fish and Wildlife to the Corps provides a timeline:

1. “By email dated May 31, 2012, Congressman Bill Posey requested a meeting with the Service to discuss the Oslo Boat Ramp permit application.”

2. “On June 4, 2012, the Corps determined the County’s request for appeal had merit . . .”

3. “On June 13, the Service and Corps met with County staff and Congressman Posey’s staff to discuss the county’s appeal of the Corps’ decision to deny authorization.”

Subsequent to that meeting, Fish and Wildlife decided that, with one modification, the project was good to go. The modification was expansion of the slow speed zone to a wider area around the ramp. County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, who has been one of the project’s chief proponents along with Commissioner Wesley Davis, says the expansion will make it easier to enforce the speed limit.

Based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s opinion, the Corps issued the long-sought permit to the county. In August 2013, St. John’s River Water Management District, which had previously rejected the project as environmentally harmful, followed suit by issuing its own permit, clearing the way for expansion to proceed.

Baker, Pelican Island Audubon Society and Vero Beach Ecologist David Cox immediately filed an appeal with the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Expert witnesses have since been deposed and a hearing that will decide whether the St. Johns permit is legitimate is scheduled for next week, June 4-6, at the county administration complex in in front of Judge D. R. Alexander. It is open to the public.

The county has spent more than half a million dollars on the project so far and plans to spend a million more if allowed to proceed.

In its current iteration, planned construction would impact 1.41 acres of wetlands, expand and pave the parking area near the ramp and the section of Oslo Road leading to the ramp, add dock space and dredge the channel connecting the ramp to the Intracoastal Waterway.

The county says no environmental harm will result, but lagoon scientists and area conservation organizations pretty much universally disagree.

“The current proposal would destroy 1.4 acres of crucial estuarine fish recruitment habitat (within a protected conservation area), as well as dredge 210ft into some of the healthiest seagrass beds left in the lagoon,” CCA chapter president Sykes wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32960. “At a time when our most valuable resource is in jeopardy, coupled with the overwhelming scientific evidence clearly illustrating the significance of this specific location, it is hard to fathom our elected representatives advocating such a nonsensical initiative.”

“There are crying needs for lagoon restoration where money could be spent much more wisely, instead of spending more than a million to harm the lagoon,” said Baker.

Even if Judge Alexander allows the project to go forward, it can still be stopped by three votes against it on the County Commission. Earlier this year, Commissioner Bob Solari suggested tabling the plan for several years rather than risk damaging the lagoon, but did not get a second for his motion. If two other commissioners have a change of heart and vote with Solari, the plan will be mothballed.

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