By The Miami Herald Editorial
Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resource Management — vital to the region’s natural resources, but reviled by some residents who consider it heavy-handed — already is a shadow of its former self. Now it looks like the county commission is poised to finish it off in the name of streamlining the county’s construction-permitting process and economic development.
That would be a mistake, putting the long-term environmental well-being of this community in danger. Environmental protection is not antithetical to either of those goals, and commissioners should seek balance when the issue comes up for discussion, scheduled for their Tuesday meeting.
County Mayor Carlos Gimenez last year combined the functions of the environmental, planning and zoning departments. It was part of his campaign promise to streamline county operations at a savings to tax-stressed residents. His idea of a “one-stop shop” for permitting functions makes a lot of sense. As he said: “You have to jump through 17 hoops for somebody to replace a sea wall.”
Now, in his pursuit of another overhaul, he and the commission must make sure that taxpayers ultimately don’t bear the high costs of a tainted, damaged environment. In many ways, it’s our bread and butter, drawing tourists, providing recreation and, yes, creating economic development. Compare the parks and condos that have come to line Biscayne Bay decades after it was cleaned of icky things that repelled rather than attracted water activities.
More important, this community is sitting on top of its water supply, a fragile resource that is under threat of contamination, along with the Everglades, which must be protected from further degradation.
Mr. Gimenez’s vision is to fold what remains of DERM into a new Regulatory and Economic Resources Department. DERM was responsible for enforcing a broad range of county, state and federal laws. But notice how “environment” is not even in the new department’s name. That’s worrisome, despite the mayor’s protestations that the environment — the air we breath, the water we drink, the landscapes and vistas we enjoy — remains a priority.
Apparently taking their cues from the state, which foolishly took a sledgehammer to its growth-management laws, some commissioners, too, seem ready to dismantle the policies that have stood between smart growth and a development free-for-all. One proposal would let small farmers fill wetlands without permits. This means that residents who have staked a claim in the 81/2-Square-Mile Area in west Miami-Dade could build in areas that, along with underground aquifers, provide the water the community relies on. Of course, these residents have waged a pitched battle with DERM — vilifying its inspectors and its fines — for almost two decades. But allowing building in designated wetlands would be a short-sighted sop to a very small group of disgruntled people, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Mr. Gimenez, however, is right to want to streamline the county’s construction-permitting process. It has been an impediment to getting businesses up and running and letting homeowners make necessary repairs and move on.
Still, replacing a sea wall remains a lot easier than replacing coral reefs and drinking water and wetlands. It was DERM’s responsibility to protect them all. And the mayor and commission must ensure that this responsibility does not disappear when the department does.