Development Would Destroy Wetlands that Provide a Natural Barrier to Hurricanes, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (November 10, 2005) -- Late today a Jacksonville federal court issued a "preliminary injunction" temporarily stopping construction that could destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and pollute waters in the Florida Panhandle. The court will decide whether to stop construction permanently after a final hearing on the case in February.

The injunction holds up a general permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowing real estate firms to build on undeveloped areas in Bay and Walton counties without the environmental reviews and public input required by federal law.

The court issued the injunction at the request of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club, which sued the Army Corps of Engineers last May. Florida developers already have broken ground for a number of major real estate projects. Among them is the St. Joe Co.'s WaterSound North, a planned development of more than 1,300 homes, golf courses, roads, shopping centers, and other facilities, on the shores of Lake Powell, a rare coastal dune lake.

The court today agreed with NRDC and the Sierra Club that the Corp's general permit "does not comply with the statutory requirements of the CWA [Clean Water Act]." The court also pointed out the Corps conceded that "it has never before used a regional general permit in this way," and added that NRDC and the Sierra Club have proven that the permit is likely illegal. (For a copy of the court order, click here.)

"We hit a home run today. The court agreed with us that this is an unprecedented, illegal permit," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC staff attorney. "Halting construction will save thousands of acres of wetlands and Lake Powell, a popular fishing spot for Panhandle residents."

The Corps' general permit provides blanket authorization for development in some 48,000 acres around Lake Powell, West Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton and Bay counties (For a map of the area, click here.) The primary beneficiary is St. Joe, which owns more than 80 percent of the land in the area and is the largest private real estate holder in the state.

Wetlands, which cover 45 percent of the 48,000 acres, act like a sponge, cleansing surface and groundwater of sediments, pollutants and toxins, and provide critical wildlife habitat. Perhaps even more important, wetlands help prevent floods by regulating river and lake levels, and groundwater tables. They absorb storm surges before they can sweep over inland communities, and they help break up high winds.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, scientists have stressed that wetlands provide a key natural defense against storms and that Katrina's impact would have been less severe if Louisiana had not allowed so many of its coastal wetlands to be developed.

The NRDC-Sierra Club suit charges that the Corps' permit violates two federal environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement evaluating potential damage from development; and the Clean Water Act, which requires that damage to waterways be minimal. Both laws require public participation, which the Corps has prohibited in this case. NRDC is asking the federal court in Jacksonville to invalidate the permit.