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Orange County is updating its wetlands protections

Ron Lach

Orange County commissioners received an update on proposed changes to the county’s Wetland Conservation Areas Ordinance during a work session Tuesday.

The proposed changes are the result of approximately two years of work, according to Environmental Programs Administrator Tim Hull, who presented the latest information to commissioners Tuesday.

Wetlands help to enhance water quality and keep surface waters, like rivers, flowing strong; they also help absorb floodwaters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But in the last 200 years, Florida lost more than 9 million acres of wetlands — meaning it lost more wetlands, in acres, than any other state, according to a report published in 1990 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Still, Florida remains the state with the most wetlands, according to the agency.

Locally, Orange County lost 5.6% of its wetland acreage in the last thirty years, Hull said Tuesday, citing a recent study conducted as part of the process to revise the county’s Wetland Conservation Areas Ordinance.

Another step in the ongoing revision process was a regulatory framework study, which Hull said was conducted to determine how Orange County’s wetlands regulations compare to other counties’, as well as regulations set at the state and federal level.

The key takeaway

“Article X is outdated,” Hull said Tuesday, referring to Orange County’s current wetlands ordinance. “It was codified in 1987, approximately 34 years ago, and it should be updated to reflect current practices.”

Now, Hull and his team are fine-tuning proposals to change the county’s ordinance, including by streamlining administrative processes and clarifying the county’s authority to regulate protections for especially sensitive areas.

Development projects that could potentially impact a wetland in Orange County must be permitted before they can begin, and right now, the county only issues one kind of permit. But if it’s adopted later this year, the county’s updated ordinance would create a new system of tiered permitting, involving two different types of permits, Hull said.

Under the new ordinance, projects would need to receive either a Noticed General Permit (NGP) or a Standard Permit, Hull said. The NGPs would provide a simplified application process for lower-impact development projects that affect less than a quarter acre, Hull said, as well as an expedited review process for those applicants.

“If you check all the boxes, you qualify for the permit and you’d get an expedited review,” Hull said.

Still, only certain applicants meeting specific criteria could take advantage of that simplified permit process, according to Hull.

“We’re trying to limit it,” Hull said. “We get requests for sport courts, for tennis and basketball, mother-in-law suites, riding stables — all kinds of requests for impacts to wetlands, and that’s not what the NGP is going to be designed to do.”

Another update that Hull says would enhance the county’s current wetland protections is the proposed minimum 100-foot upland buffer: a strip of undisturbed land along the edge of a wetland area that helps protect the wetland, according to the St. Johns River Management District.

“The 100-foot buffer is going to be great for enhancing protection of the wetlands and improving their longevity,” Hull said.

But although it would become the new minimum standard, that 100-foot buffer would also come with some exceptions, providing some flexibility for projects where a smaller buffer might be appropriate, Hull said. The new proposed regulations would also allow for larger buffers in some cases.

“When there are factors on the site that indicate a larger buffer may be necessary … we will have flexible enough language in the code that allows us to require that,” Hull said.

Enforcing the ordinance

Some county residents who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment period expressed concern about whether Orange County would adequately enforce new wetland regulations.

“We do enforcement. It is complaint-driven, so we get a complaint from either a named caller or an anonymous caller,” Hull said. “Either way, if it's an environmental issue, we investigate them.”

Hull said the county has code enforcement officers who focus specifically on investigating complaints about impacts to the environment, processing approximately 200 of those cases a year.

One proposed change would likely also change the name of the ordinance itself. Right now, Orange County’s ordinance refers to “wetland conservation areas,” including in its title. But the updated version would more specifically define “wetlands” and “surface waters.”

“That was a bit confusing for people; they sometimes mix up [conservation] easements and areas,” Hull said. “‘Surface waters’ wasn’t intuitively in the code under conservation areas, so that’s an important change.”

Conservation easements are legal agreements designed to conserve environmentally sensitive lands.

Following Tuesday’s work session, Hull said he will solicit feedback from several county advisory boards on the draft ordinance, before bringing it back before county commissioners at an adoption hearing Dec. 12. A meeting schedule is available on Orange County’s website.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for Central Florida Public Media.
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