- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Few know as much about rules guarding Florida’s water and wetlands as John Miklos.

Miklos is chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District, which dictates who gets drinking water and who can develop real estate in wetlands in much of Central and North Florida.

He also is a widely known entrepreneur paid by developers to handle environmental regulations.

Miklos’ dual role came into the spotlight this month when a tractor operator hired by his Orlando company to do restoration work at an Osceola County park veered into and uprooted reforestation done at great expense and by volunteers.

The action has prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District to investigate whether Miklos adhered correctly to wetlands regulations.

Miklos, the environmental consultant for the developer on that project, blamed the subcontractor he hired for tilling the wrong place.

“The real travesty in this and where my company screwed up is when the sub we hired . went outside the area he was asked to work in,” Miklos said.

Stunned to learn he had been blamed, the tractor operator said he navigated his $500,000 rig precisely according to a map sent to him by Miklos.

“He said everything inside the lines and that’s exactly what I did using GPS,” Bill Bostick said.

The matter is more complex than operator error.

With the St. Johns water district for five years, Miklos has emerged as a go-to environmental agent at his company, Bio-Tech Consulting.

His clients are homebuilders, commercial projects and the Orlando-to-Miami rail venture, All Aboard Florida. Many need a district permit to alter storm water or to drain, dig or fill wetlands.

Miklos has declared a conflict of interest more than a dozen times when the agency’s board considered matters involving his clients. But the vast majority of permit actions and decisions are by senior staff.

His expertise is respected. A half-dozen developers, regulators and environmental consultants from North to Central Florida declined to comment on his roles as watchdog and aide for development in soggy real estate.

But prominent environmental consultant Mike Dennis of Orlando said St. Johns district appointees regularly include environmental professionals. “I don’t find anything improper with it,” he said.

Appointed by the governor for four-year, unpaid terms, nine members of the current board have backgrounds in real estate, paper mills, transportation and water engineering, citrus and military. None are active with environmental groups.

Duke Woodson, former St. Johns River district executive and retired real-estate lawyer in Orlando, said board members with expertise such as Miklos can be “incredibly valuable” for agency work.

Woodson noted that for some board members, “I’m sure it’s good for business.”

Miklos comes across as assertive and is given to f-bombs.

Asked who is more authoritative than he is on the most complex of Florida’s environmental regulations, Miklos said: “I don’t know, you tell me.”

The proposed restoration at Osceola County’s Twin Oaks Conservation Area where the tractor incident occurred requires deep expertise in a realm of Florida environmental regulation that water districts specialize in.

Twin Oaks is a rising flagship among Osceola parks. It has a windmill that pumps water for horses, two piers that extend across Lake Tohopekaliga, and tent sites nestled by the park’s namesake, a pair of majestic oaks. Osceola bought the park’s low-lying 370 acres in 2010 for $9.2 million.

The county set out to give new life to shoreline and 80 acres of pasture there, spending $350,000 to kill weeds and plant 45,000 natives, including pine, palmetto and wiregrass. Scout troops pitched in.

Working in the park through much of May, the tractor turned nearly 30 acres of that reforested area into a mess of deep ruts. The county summoned deputes to report vandalism but since has accepted Miklos’ apology and his promise to repair the damage.

Park gates were set to reopen Saturday after being locked for more than two weeks.

The vast pasture at Twin Oaks is mostly wetlands or lake bottom kept drained by a canal and pump.

After the county bought the land, a corporate neighbor, the giant homebuilder D.R. Horton, worked with Osceola to combine its Twin Oaks pasture with similar nearby pasture on Horton’s development property.

The combined pastureland is proposed to be a mitigation bank, an environmental venture in Florida in which backers can pocket millions in profit but is so complex that relatively few specialists are fluent in its regulations.

Named by Horton and Osceola as the “Lake Toho Wetland Mitigation Bank,” it would be a bank where developers pay for the heavy work of converting pasture back into lake and wetlands. In doing so, developers would get credits from the bank that could be used to mitigate, or pay for, destruction of wetlands elsewhere.

The Toho bank was pitched as an extraordinary deal for Osceola County as it would own more than 500 acres of restored wetlands and would collect $5 million from the venture to cover maintenance costs.

Overall, the bank would be worth $13 million to the county, according to approvals in late 2013 by Osceola officials, who turned over the project to Horton and its consultant, Miklos.

The proposed mitigation bank is expected to require state and federal permits of such a serious nature that, as standard practice, an applicant typically would not begin work until the documents are final.

No applications have been made for permits for the Lake Toho Mitigation Bank.

Miklos said the tractor work was an appropriate step toward for the mitigation bank and did not require a permit. That’s because tilling soil is an agricultural task exempt from Corps or South Florida water district rules, he said.

He acknowledged his interpretation could be disputed by the South Florida water district, whose leaders he has worked closely with.

Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida district, said preliminary intent of his agency’s inquiry would not be to find fault.

“It’s not about penalties and fines,” Smith said. “It’s about making sure it is restored.”

Miklos said the tractor tilled pasture to kill weeds and promote growth of desired plants.

“This is a historic project and very exciting,” Miklos said. “The bottom line is we are trying to work and get that site prepped so we can get the maximum value out of it and get the best ecological system.”

Yet a number of regulators said tractor work done before a permit is obtained would make it more difficult for an agency to assess the ecological health of a proposed mitigation site and, as a result, make it tougher to calculate the number of credits a bank could sell.

Miklos stressed there was no intent do that or anything inappropriate in launching a mitigation bank.

“The notion that my company would have gone out and destroyed wetlands is (expletive) ridiculous,” he said.

___

Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide