Palm Beach County won a big battle in the fight to extend State Road 7 Friday when Administrative Law Judge Bram Carter found that the county had followed all applicable permitting criteria and is entitled to an environmental resource permit.
The county has pushed to extend State Road 7 north to Northlake Boulevard, but the city of West Palm Beach has pushed back, arguing that the extension threatens the Grassy Waters Preserve, a 24-square mile marsh that is the source of its drinking water.
Carter’s recommended order is a major victory for the county.
“The project would not adversely impact public health, safety, and welfare associated with the city’s public water supply in the water catchment area because the project would have no effect on the city’s water supply operations,” the judge wrote. “In addition, there are reasonable protective measures to prevent a spill from entering the city’s public water supply.”
All parties now have 15 days to petition the South Florida Water Management District with errors they believe Carter committed in the order.
If SFWMD agrees that an error has been made, the erroneous portion of Carter’s order will not be followed.
But in an email to county officials, Assistant County Attorney Kim Phan pointed out that un-ringing the bell Carter just struck is no small task.
“An agency’s ability to reject any portion of a recommended order is very limited to conclusions of law and interpretation of administrative rules,” Phan wrote. “Also, the agency may not reject or modify the findings of fact unless it was not based on competent substantial evidence on the proceedings (or) did not comply with essential requirements of law.”
On Tuesday in West Palm Beach, the 16-county district’s governing board approved a $726.6 million budget for 2016-2017 in which property owners will pay $33.07 per $100,000 of taxable land value, the agency said in a release.
The budget comes from a mix of property taxes and other income from local, state and federal sources, as well as fees, investments and farming taxes.
About 85 percent of the budget goes for flood control, operations and maintenance of lands, as well as ongoing restoration goals. That includes $54.1 million for the next phases of an $880 million plan to improve Everglades water quality. The release said the budget contains $234 million in state money to accelerate restoration projects.
Lisa Interlandi, a senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center, says the South Florida Water Management District retaliated against her for submitting a public records request.
Interlandi submitted a request for the district’s email list earlier this month after the district told those on the list that, “Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes to pay for the federal government’s failure to control invasive plants that are destroying the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.”
The district sent that blast email after Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper urged district board members not to roll back tax rates so the district would have more money for program work.
“I wanted to know who was receiving those communications,” Interlandi said, adding that the district’s emails were, in her view, “increasingly negative and were calling out people by name.”
Interlandi offered examples of the district’s communications. In one from May, the district told email recipients that “former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah inaccurately alleged flawed scientific modeling was used in Everglades restoration planning.”
In another, also from May, the Caloosahatchee River Watch came in for criticism.
“Today, the Caloosahatchee River Watch group is holding what was advertised as a public forum to discuss the C-43 Reservoir project,” the email state. “However, this ‘forum’ will consist solely of one-sided detractors in pursuit of an agenda without facts to support it.”
Many government agencies do keep email lists to provide media members and others information about upcoming events and summaries of agency actions.
After the district said Audubon Florida wants to raise taxes, Interlandi asked for the district’s mailing list. The district complied. But it also sent out another email, this one letting recipients know their email addresses had been sought.
Under the heading “Your Privacy,” the district wrote:
“The South Florida Water Management District has received a public records request from a party associated with the email address – email@example.com – seeking more than 5,000 email addresses contained in SFWMD’s electronic mailing list. This agency is legally obligated under Chapter 119 of Florida State Statutes to fulfill this demand and provide these email addresses.
“As you may know, such email lists and addresses are commercial commodities that are often bought and sold. The law prohibits SFWMD from asking about the intended use for the information. Any concern you may have about a potential invasion of privacy is understandable.
“SFWMD maintains email lists with the intention of keeping the public informed about the agency’s work. These email lists represents a wide range of interested parties, including individuals who requested SFWMD information, elected officials, environmental groups, businesses, scientific communities and the media.
“You may receive unwanted solicitations or correspondence as a result of this public records request.”
Interlandi said she would never sell the email list, which is a public record. She said she views the SFWMD email as retaliation for asking for the district’s email list.”They retaliated by publishing my email address,” Interlandi said. “What other purpose is served by publishing my email address? I believe it was retaliation for requesting the list.”
District Spokesman Randy Smith said those on the email list were warned of Interlandi’s request “in an abundance of caution.”
“When faced with a mass public record demand for private and other email addresses, SFWMD, in an abundance of caution, chose to notify the persons affected of this fact,” Smith wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. Smith said the district “has never received a mass public records demand for an email address list. The requester did not ask for communication or specific emails but rather an entire email address list, which was completely out of the ordinary.”
The district, Smith said, does not know how the list will be used and believes those on the list “have every right to know that their information has been obtained by a third party without their consent.”
As for telling email recipients who had requested the list, Smith said the district “never mentioned the requester by name. SFWMD never assumes an identity of an individual solely based off an email address.”