A Florida Supreme Court case could have rippling effects on Minnesota’s wetland protection, and that should prompt state officials, business leaders and environmentalists to look for common ground.
The Florida court last week sided with a property owner who argued it was wrong for local government to require the owner to pay for wetland restoration elsewhere in exchange for permission to develop wetlands on his property.
The so-called “wetlands trading” or “wetlands credit” has long been widely used in Minnesota and elsewhere. The premise is that if someone wants to fill in a wetland for development, he must either restore a new wetland on their property or pay for credits that go into a coffer to restore wetlands anywhere in the state.
The program has benefits beyond ensuring no net loss of wetlands. By banking money to restore wetlands in locations other than the development area, the program actually helps create a restored wetlands system that is superior to the existing wetlands. That’s because all wetlands are not created equal.
Restoring a small wetland amid crowded development is good, but it’s not always as beneficial as putting resources into adding to large-scale, well-managed wetlands complexes.
The Florida court ruled that requiring the landowner to restore parts of his or her land or pay for wetland restoration elsewhere was “extortion.”
While the ruling has no direct effect on Minnesota law, it is expected to open the door to similar lawsuits here.
That’s something that everyone should try to avoid by getting policy makers, developers, environmentalists and others to sit down and look for ways wetland protection rules can be kept in a way that prevents successful suits while protecting wetlands.
Although the Florida case sided with the developer, local and state governments have substantial clout in the issue and developers have the potential to get even more onerous rules if they aggressively challenge the wetlands credit program.
That’s because the court ruling doesn’t bar local and state government from setting even stricter development rules that would simply bar landowners from doing most development on their property if it would impact a wetland. That scenario would be bad for just about everyone. It would limit what landowners and developers could do with property, it could slow economic development and it would not add to the higher quality restored wetlands complexes.
That’s why looking for solutions now that can preserve the essence of the wetland restoration program is so important.