More Bad Publicity for the St. Johns River Water Management District

 

Ethics-woodblock

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John Miklos Center of Controversy

In spite of a formal ethics complaint against him, St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board chairman John Miklos continues his personal private business with the district, in what many see as a definite conflict of interest.  Likewise, the district staff continues to serve the clients from Miklos’ business, whose applicants have doubled since he became board chairman.  Critics say that even if he recuses himself from a vote, common sense recognizes that his very position of power on the board constitutes a silent, intimidating and influential force.

Previous posts outlining Miklos’ personal business ventures can be found at “The Water Here Smells Bad,” an article in the Gainesville Sun, and “Water Board Chair Recieves Ethics Complaint,” from the Daytona Beach News Journal.

The following article is also from the Daytona Beach News Journal.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life:  once taken, it cannot be brought back-
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Miklos at center of controversy again

Saturday

Posted Jul 16, 2016 at 6:12 PM Updated Jul 17, 2016 at 2:22 PM

Among many concerns, opponents to a proposed wetland bank in New Smyrna Beach fear losing access to the network of canals and waterways near their homes and harmful impacts from the proposed restoration of old mosquito ditches. They hope to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – one of two agencies that would have to approve creation of the bank – to conduct a local public hearing.

By Dinah Voyles Pulver,[email protected]

NEW SMYRNA BEACH — A proposed wetland mitigation bank on 315 acres of land in a state aquatic preserve between the Intracoastal Waterway and the barrier island is raising the eyebrows and ire of nearby residents.

Among many concerns, the residents fear losing access to the network of canals and waterways near their homes and harmful impacts from the proposed restoration of old mosquito ditches. They’re also concerned about the role of consultant John Miklos. They hope to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — one of two agencies that would have to approve creation of the bank — to conduct a local public hearing.

“It’s outright maddening,” said Scott Yurchison, a Realtor in New Smyrna Beach, who lives along the waterway where the bank could be created. “It’s wrong on so many levels.”

The property’s owner, Davey Johnson, former Major League Baseball All-Star player and manager, insists residents’ fears are unfounded. “There’s a whole bunch of hollering about nothing but a good thing,” Johnson said. “I’m turning the land back to its natural state. It’s a good thing.”

It could also be a moneymaker, with developers who destroy wetlands on their own projects buying credits on the restored wetlands.

Residents have concerns about the consultant Johnson hired to handle the permitting, Orlando-based Bio-Tech Consulting Inc. Miklos, the firm’s president, has been under fire elsewhere over potential conflicts because he is chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District. The district is the other agency that must approve and oversee wetland bank permits.

In DeBary, Bio-Tech was hired to represent the city in efforts to secure permits to use 100 acres of district-owned conservation land to support a public/private development around the SunRail station. The subsequent controversy spawned a Florida Commission on Ethics complaint about Miklos’ role. The status of that complaint is unknown because the commission doesn’t comment on active complaints.

“It’s an obvious conflict for him to be chairman of the water management district and representing a client at the same time,” said Brent Brown, a New Smyrna Beach resident concerned about the mitigation bank.

But, state rules for board members have always allowed consultants, engineers and others to serve on the board because of their experience. However, Miklos’ busy client list has prompted former board members and others to question whether that rule should be revisited.

A News-Journal investigation in May showed district permit applications represented by Bio-Tech more than doubled in the two years after Miklos was appointed board chairman. Former district executive directors said it’s up to individual board members not to cross ethical lines. Miklos has declared a conflict 10 times before a board vote since March 2012, more than any other current board member, but most permits are approved by staff rather than board members. A couple of Miklos’ former board colleagues have questioned whether he has unfairly used his position.

Miklos did not return a request for comment. He has stated he doesn’t use his position as chairman to influence staff working on his projects.

DISTRICT, RESIDENT CONCERNS

Miklos’ relationship with the district did not stop district staff from sending Johnson and Bio-Tech a lengthy list of questions and concerns about the proposed bank on June 24. Responding to a prospectus prepared by Johnson and Bio-Tech, the district asked for more in-depth information on 25 items that needed further explanation, proof or revision, including proposed hydrologic and ecological improvements.

Webster Creek Mitigation Bank

Objectives:

Preserve 202.15 acres of mangrove swamp and salt marsh

Enhance .09 acres of upland habitat and 101.94 acres of wetlands altered by mosquito control ditches

Restore 10.68 acres of open drainageways and spoil piles to mangrove swamp

More Information:

Army Corps of Engineers website

Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve

Questions, comments or concerns must be submitted to Amy Thompson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by July 24.

Email: [email protected]

Fax: 904-232-1904

Phone: 904-232-3974

Mail: Jacksonville District Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, Florida 32232-0019

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Bio-Tech has offered to sit down with a group of the concerned residents to answer some of their questions. Yurchison said that meeting might take place this week.

Bio-Tech would be happy to talk with anyone rather than having the community coming up with all of these “outrageous stories,” Johnson said. “They’re good people and they’re trying to do the right thing.”

“It’s a big squabble,” he said. If the residents would “read up on what a mitigation bank is, they’d understand it’s a good thing for the area.”

Developers use government approved wetland mitigation banks as a way to make up for destroying wetlands when they can’t avoid impacts or create enough conservation on their own land. Bank owners get permits to restore, maintain and protect large areas of wetlands and are assigned a certain number of credits for those improvements. Developers seeking to compensate for wetland destruction are allowed to buy credits from a bank in the same watershed as their project, generally one credit for each acre of wetlands. The going rate for a credit in Central Florida is about $135,000.

The district’s letter to Johnson said it’s too early to tell how many credits might be awarded to the proposed Webster Creek Mitigation Bank, if it’s approved.

The prospectus sent by Johnson and Bio-Tech to the water district and Army Corps states the project will have “significant potential for benefits to a wide-range” of aquatic resources and habitats. It lists measures proposed to restore and protect property within the bank and states the surrounding Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve has “extraordinary conservation value.”

But, neighbors Brent Brown, Yurchison and others, including district staff, have many concerns about the prospectus.

A key question of the district staff and others is exactly how much land should be considered part of the bank and how much should be considered sovereign submerged land, which already belongs to the state. It influences how much land is included in the bank, how many credits would be issued and whether an earlier, controversial long-term mosquito ditch restoration took place on public or private property.

The prospectus states the proposed bank is 314 acres, but district staff questioned that. Volusia County Property Appraiser records show Johnson owns about 152 acres, classified mostly as submerged or wasteland.

District staff questioned the mean high water line — the boundary between sovereign state lands and private property — Bio-Tech used in the prospectus, .28 feet.

That also alarmed Brown and Buck Carr, a former assistant secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation in the 1970s. The men pointed out that Miklos personally emailed Rod Maddox, a program manager for state lands at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, to work out the boundaries that would be used. The Department oversees the water districts.

The state seems “willing to deed all of that land, even the tidal creeks, to a private developer,” said Carr, who contends the high water line should be much higher. “You’re talking about millions of dollars of value and it’s right in the middle of the aquatic preserve.”

However, the district also questioned Bio-Tech’s email exchanges with Maddox, saying a survey “appears to include several inconsistencies.” For example: “The Boundary and Mean High Water Line Survey was dated 2/30/14,” the district letter stated. “This must be an error because there are not 30 days in February.”

The district stated the survey seems to include tidal creeks that connect to the lagoon and are considered state-owned lands. “Please revise the survey to exclude these areas from the applicant’s property or provide clarification from the Division of State Lands,” the letter stated.

District and DEP officials said the department is reviewing its decision about how much land ownership should be included within the bank boundaries.

DITCH RESTORATION AN ISSUE

Ownership also is an issue when it comes to a network of dragline ditches dug for mosquito control in the 1950s and 60s, to drain salt marshes where mosquitoes breed. The prospectus states a majority of Johnson’s property was altered by the ditching and includes plans to restore the ditches, converting them back to mangrove swamps, tidal creeks and tidal flats.

Similar ditch restorations that have already taken place inside the project’s boundaries have been the subject of bitter dispute for years. Using federal grant money, the water district and Volusia County have worked for years to fill in many of the old ditches in Mosquito Lagoon to restore salt marshes and a more natural water flow.

But, a New Smyrna Beach clam farmer, Mike Sullivan, and others insist that work increases silt and muddies the water, destroying habitat and shellfish. The government agencies contend restoration is the best thing for the habitat. But, the work has been halted. Both sides are awaiting the outcome of an early June trial in a lawsuit about the restoration efforts.

The prospectus reports at least 85 acres inside Johnson’s proposed bank have been restored by the district and its partners. That perplexes Brown and others.

“It seems obvious the water management district knowingly was operating on private property,” Brown said. He questioned whether Johnson could benefit from work performed with taxpayer money by turning around and selling credits for restored wetlands to developers.

In an email, district spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie stated the district verified the state owned the property where mosquito ditch restorations took place before the work was started.

Yurchison and others also are concerned about the method proposed to restore the remaining ditches and spoil areas: a process called hydroblasting, using water under pressure to push dirt in the old spoil piles back into the ditches.

Johnson said he liked the concept of hydroblasting because he shared residents’ concerns about the existing work on the mosquito ditches. He said: “There ought to be an easier way to get those humps down.”

But, district staff also question the hydroblasting. They asked for more details and an explanation of how water quality and shellfish harvesting would be protected.

Residents are particularly fearful about water quality in Mosquito Lagoon because it has been plagued by harmful algae blooms since 2011. The entire Indian River Lagoon system lost more than 40,000 acres of seagrass beds and the density of grass in the beds has been reduced from 60 percent coverage to 10 percent.

‘POTENTIAL’ DEVELOPMENT

The opponents also fear they may lose access to the waterways near their homes, based on references in the prospectus to the posting of additional no trespassing signs and enhanced security. The prospectus states existing conditions on the property limit wildlife corridors and that boat and canoe access allows “human intervention.”

“I don’t see how being in a canoe is really doing any damage,” said Brown, a pharmacist who has lived a couple of lots away from one of the creeks for 21 years. Many of the property owners keep kayaks along the waterway. “When they talk about the no trespassing signs and you look at the piles they’re going to level,” he said, “that tells me I will not be able to access the creek.”

However, Johnson said he has no plans to, and wouldn’t be allowed to, fill in the creeks.

“They’re very much misinformed,” said Johnson. “You don’t fill in the waterways.”

Yurchison fears the proposed bank might be a way to seque into developing the land instead.

The prospectus states it’s “not probable that the property would be developed in the near future,” if not used for a mitigation bank. However, several paragraphs later it states the property does remain “a potential site for condo, marina or residential development.”

“Why did they put that language in there,” said Yurchison, “unless they want that option in the future.”

Johnson said he has no plans to develop the land, but he’s not surprised people hear his name and wonder. They know he’s developed other projects in New Smyrna Beach.

He once thought about building a house and a dock on the land, which he said he bought decades ago, but decided against it. “I do have the option, I could develop it,” he said. “I could put houses on 25 acres. But I wouldn’t do that, that’s not what’s right for it.”

Instead, he said he’s spending “a lot of money to make it a bank.”

“Everybody should be happy,” he said. “I would think it would increase value. With nothing on it, it’s a better view.”

On Friday, Brown and Carr met with officials from the Corps and the district, as well as John Lesman from Bio-Tech.

“We had a good exchange,” Brown said, “and we were able to express many of our concerns.”

Webster Creek Mitigation Bank

Objectives:

Preserve 202.15 acres of mangrove swamp and salt marsh

Enhance .09 acres of upland habitat and 101.94 acres of wetlands altered by mosquito control ditches

Restore 10.68 acres of open drainageways and spoil piles to mangrove swamp

More Information:

Army Corps of Engineers website

Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve

Questions, comments or concerns must be submitted to Amy Thompson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by July 24.

Email: Amy.D.Thompson@usace.army.mil

Fax: 904-232-1904

Phone: 904-232-3974

Mail: Jacksonville District Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, Florida 32232-0019

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection

2 Comments

  1. My home is on the canal that leads directly to the WEBSTER CREEK. This action may be harmful to our area residents.

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