Wednesday, March 29, 2023

How a destroyed eagle nest led Florida legislators to attack local pollution rules. (Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix)

Another excellent column by Craig Pittman for Florida Phoenix: 


How a destroyed eagle nest led Florida legislators to attack local pollution rules

The bills banning local wetland and water quality protections began with the building of a lake house in Pasco County

MARCH 16, 2023 7:00 AM

 One of the nesting eagles near Lake Jovita in Pasco County. Credit: Kim Rexroat

It’s been a while since I went on a tour of the Florida State Capitol, the esteemed winner of the Most Phallic Public Building in the World contest.

So, you’ll have to forgive me if I am unable to tell you exactly where to find the Well of Nincompoopery. I can only assume its existence from the behavior of our fine legislators, who seem to drink deeply from this well whenever they’re in session.

Based strictly on the ridiculous bills they’ve sponsored this year, some of them aren’t just sipping the well water. They’re soaking in it.

 Aerial photo Downtown Tallahassee Florida State Capitol

There’s a bill to protect Confederate monuments from ever being torn down! And stop any attempt at rent control in the least affordable state! And ban the flying of rainbow flags in state buildings (but not Rebel flags)! And dictate the use of pronouns! (This is where Daffy Duck would look at the camera and say, “Pronoun trouble!’).

The bills that struck me as the biggest evidence that there’s a Well of Nincompoopery in Tallahassee are a pair that come out in favor of water pollution.

The bills — HB 1197 in the House and SB 1240 in the Senate — would forbid any local governments from “adopting laws, regulations, rules, or policies relating to water quality or quantity, pollution control, pollutant discharge prevention or removal, and wetlands.”

Bear in mind that these bills are being put forward at a time when our beaches are plagued by a months-long red tide toxic algae bloom fueled by pollution in stormwater runoff.

Meanwhile. Lake Okeechobee is so choked by a blue-green toxic algae bloom fed by pollution that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to stop releasing lake water to the east coast — twice.

Worst of all, a recent court decision found that the state Department of Environmental Foot-dragging — er, excuse me, “Protection,” — has failed for the past four years to clean up the pollution sources degrading our springs. You can bet the springs aren’t the only Florida waterways being neglected.

 State Rep. Randy Maggard, representing part of Pasco County. Credit: Florida House

Yet here come a couple of elected lawmakers saying they want to get rid of local regulations aiming for cleaner water and protection of wetlands.

Environmental groups have named these bills the worst of the session. Given all the other kooky stuff that’s been proposed, that should tell you a lot.

“These bills are a direct threat to our state’s environment and public health,” said Cragin Mosteller of the Florida Association of Counties. “By stripping local governments of their ability to protect, preserve, and regulate water use, this bill puts profits over the beauty and safety of our communities.”

Rachel O’Hara of the Florida League of Cities agreed, and rattled off for me a long list of important municipal ordinances that would be invalidated. She also told me, “I can’t make heads or tails out of what problem is supposed to be addressed by the bill.”

Who would be such big nincompoops that they would push these pro-pollution bills? The sponsors are two guys from the same place, Pasco County: Rep. Randy Maggard and Sen. Danny Burgess.

And thereby hangs quite a tale, one involving an eagle nest, a swamp, and a house lot at a golf club. I’ve even got a soundtrack for it! Hang on, let me put on my DJ earphones.

A family affair

Pasco County has long enjoyed a reputation as Ground Zero for Mind-Boggling Florida Weirdness, so our first record is Swamp Dogg’s “Total Destruction to Your Mind.”

Do you doubt Pasco’s bona fides? Exhibit A is the time Pasco deputies Tasered a runaway kangaroo. Exhibit B: The time the mayor of Port Richey was arrested after a gun battle with a SWAT team for practicing medicine without a license. Twenty days later, the acting mayor was arrested as well.

I can offer lots more examples, like that time the KKK adopted a highway. When people objected, Klan leaders promised to wear orange vests while picking up litter, not their usual white robes.

Pasco was once a hotbed of Mafia activity. Now it’s known as the Nudist Capital of America, because there are more nudist resorts there than anywhere else. There’s even a Bare Dare 5K, aka “ the largest clothing-optional race in North America.”

Pasco is also known for producing lots of clean water. In fact, other local governments tried to suck the whole place dry back in the ’80s and ’90s.

So why would a couple of Pasco politicos want to put the kibosh on water pollution regulations? Especially since one of them — Maggard — is vice chairman of the newly created Water Quality, Supply and Treatment Subcommittee as well as a former chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District?

In a recent Miami Herald story, a reporter tried to pin Rep. Maggard down about his motives. He said he filed the bill because “he ‘heard stories’ about cities and counties requiring residents to obtain a water permit ‘even if the water management district allows it’ but, when pressed, could not provide an example.”

Hey, I can think of an example — the specific one that REALLY prompted Maggard’s bill.

It involves the Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club in Dade City, where his nephew was building a house and ran afoul of the rules.

This is the point where I cue up Sly and the Family Stone singing about how “It’s a family affaaaaair …”

De-eagling the golf club

Zach Maggard was a standout Little League, high school, and college baseball player and, for a time, a minor-league catcher. (Our soundtrack now switches to John Fogerty rocking out: “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play …”)

But he never got called up to The Show and retired from the national pastime in 2013.

 Zach Maggard via LinkedIn

Corporate records show he’s now senior vice president and chief lending officer at the Dade City-based BankFlorida.

One of the bank’s directors, by the way, is his dad, Dale Maggard, co-owner with the representative and their father of Sonny’s Discount Appliances and a business partner of Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson.

The registered agent for the bank happens to be another of Dale Maggard’s sons, Matthew Maggard, who is the longtime law partner of Sen. Burgess.

I assume the bank’s hold music is Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” so we’ll play that next.

Soon after Zach Maggard bought a lot in Lake Jovita, neighbors noticed something disturbing. A large eagle nest on that property, one that had been used year after year by the formerly endangered birds, suddenly disappeared.

“In 24 hours, a nest that had been there for 27 years was suddenly gone,” neighbor Kevin Bohne told me. “It was pretty heartbreaking.”

(This is where we’ll play the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”)

The nest didn’t just fly away. Something or someone had removed it. The nest, and the trees that held it up, had been legally protected from disturbance by any construction.

 Kim Rexroat at a Pasco County Commission meeting. Source: Screenshot

“As long as the sticks were there, the trees were protected for five years,” explained Kim Rexroat, the Audubon Florida eagle watch coordinator for Pasco, referring to the eagles’ nesting material. “Once the sticks were gone, the trees weren’t protected anymore, and it was okay to take them down.”

Outraged eagle advocates called in officials from Pasco County, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They all showed up to investigate what had become of the nest.

That’s when they realized that the lakefront wetlands shown on Maggard’s building plans didn’t match the wetlands they were seeing.

“They’d mapped out the wetlands wrong,” Rexroat told me.

Now I’m cuing up Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes.”

Under pressure

Bohne said everyone else in the Lake Jovita subdivision has done a good job of following the development rules so they can coexist with wildlife. They understood that protecting the wetlands helps keep their lake clean, so they wanted to do things right, he said.

But Maggard’s approach was — oh, let’s say “different.”

 Kevin Bohne speaking during a Pasco County Commission meeting. Source: Screenshot

“It was, ‘Just get it done and do it, and don’t care about the neighborhood,’” Bohne said. “These people are trying to manipulate the system. They don’t care about the law.”

I had an interesting on-the-record chat with a Pasco County building official who worked on the Maggard case. When we talked, he seemed as nervous as a man walking a tightrope in combat boots. He gave me an honest appraisal of what he found while avoiding saying anything critical of anyone involved.

“The wetland lines were not right,” he said. “I required that a delineation be made by the state. It showed there was a wetland impact by the construction.”

He then fielded alarmed reports that Maggard’s construction crew was cutting down trees that weren’t supposed to be cut, he said. He went back out with the county forester and they worked that out.

“I allowed him to remove some exotics — some camphor trees,” the building official said. “He had to keep the native trees.”

The big fight, though, involved a planned 12-foot “walkway” down to the lake that would cut through the wetlands. The building official could tell it wasn’t a walkway but rather a concrete driveway for a boat ramp.

Nevertheless, he said, “I tried to work with him.”

The building official suggested making the path out of a permeable material so water could continue to flow through it. That way, he said, it would comply with the wetland protection section of the Pasco County development code.

“He said, ‘Nope,’ and it got kind of nasty,” the official told me. “He went over my head.”

When I asked what happened next, he paused, choosing his words very carefully.

“It got approved,” he said finally. “I didn’t approve it.”

Maybe now is when I should mention that the county commissioner for the area covering Lake Jovita is Ron Oakley. He has a sister married to Dale Maggard, which means she’s the mother of Zach Maggard.

This seems like a good time to play Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

A ‘duplicitous’ explanation

This, then, is the real reason Rep. Maggard wants to take away from cities and counties their power to protect wetlands and combat water pollution: Because his nephew did some improper things, got caught, and yet pretty much got away with it.

 Sen. Danny Burgess at Senate committee meeting. Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Meanwhile Sen. Burgess is apparently going along with Maggard’s misguided mission as a favor to the family of his law partner. It’s not because he has some deep-seated desire to rob the public of clean water. Heck, he’s the former mayor of Zephyrhills, aka “the city of pure water.”

Let’s listen to the Marty Robbins croon about “Cool, clear water …”

I talked to Rep. Maggard this week about how this Lake Jovita situation involving his nephew turned into a legislative attack on all 67 counties and 400 or so cities across the state.

He acknowledged that his nephew’s case had inspired the bill and demanded to know how I’d heard about it (it’s common knowledge in Tallahassee). Once environmental groups began trumpeting how awful his bill was, he told, me he received “20 or 30 phone calls” from people who claimed to have had similar experiences. He also drew support from some powerful pro-development organizations, he said.

Our discussion was a little confusing because he kept using the word “duplicitous” to mean something other than “deceptive.” When I finally asked him if he meant people were lying, he said no.

“To me, duplicitous means you’re duplicating something,” he said. (I was tempted to quote Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” and tell him, “I do not think it means what you think it means,” but I didn’t think he’d get the joke.)

Maggard told me he’s in favor of protecting our sources of clean water from pollution, but “why do the customers, the consumers, the citizens have to go through all these hurdles?” He didn’t see the connection.

 Lake Jovita eaglets in a new nest. Credit: Kim Rexroat

To Maggard, we should have only one agency protecting our water, even if that agency is doing a terrible job. I expect he’s also opposed to requiring a second handrail on all staircases. Probably supports closing county sheriffs and city police departments because the Florida Highway Patrol already exists. Why have a National Guard when we’ve got the Army?

Get rid of all that “duplicitous” stuff!

I don’t know whether other legislators have drunk so deeply from the Well of Nincompoopery to vote for these idiotic bills. We can only hope that the process of wading through several “duplicitous” committee stops will slow them down too much to pass.

In the meantime, Bohne and Rexroat told me there’s good news in Lake Jovita.

The eagles came back and rebuilt their nest. The mama bird promptly used the new nest to lay a couple of eggs, which recently hatched. Here’s hoping those eaglets take flight soon — and then go peck the head of whichever duplicitous nincompoop tore the old nest down. If you’re the one, I’d like to close by dedicating this Cee-Lo Green hit to you.

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Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.


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