Unfortunately for FL’s environment, the word ‘preserve’ doesn’t really mean ‘preserved’

June 11, 2020 7:00 am

Dan Rametta, standing in a cypress swamp in Pasco County’s Serenova Preserve. Credit: Courtesy of Dan Rametta.

Florida can be such an odd place.

In the 1980s our tourism slogan bragged that “the rules are different here,” and that’s still the case. It’s true for our clothing (casual) and our footwear (flip-flops go with everything!) and our driving (either aggressive or super slooooow). It’s even true of our language.

Take the word “preserve,” for instance. It doesn’t mean the same thing in Florida that it does in the rest of the English-speaking world.

Last week, for instance, I was driving through Pasco County on the nearly empty Suncoast Parkway and happened to glance down from an overpass at the Serenova Preserve. Guys with big earthmoving machines had been busy down there, clearing out the vegetation and preparing the preserve for an onslaught of asphalt.

Did you think something called a “preserve” would be kept intact from such an intrusion? Not in Florida.

When the state Department of Transportation built the Suncoast Parkway, it destroyed about 200 acres of wetlands. To make up for the damage, the DOT bought the 10,000-acre Serenova tract and donated it to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, thus preserving its 3,500 acres of wetlands – for about five minutes, anyway.

The two federal bureaucracies in charge of protecting wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approved the permit for the Suncoast to destroy those wetlands because Serenova was such a large, unbroken slice of natural Florida landscape.

The only problem was that as soon as the transaction went through, Pasco County officials immediately began planning a new road that would run right through the middle of the “preserve.”

Serenova’s new owner did not object, in part because the road-builders promised to “preserve” more land somewhere else to make up for damaging the land that was supposed to be “preserved” to make up for the parkway’s damage.

That Pasco County did not immediately get permission to build a four-lane, eight-mile Ridge Road Extension is largely due to a motor-mouthed retired math and science teacher named Dan Rametta and his quiet surveyor buddy, Richard Sommerville.

Sommerville would dig up all the key documentation, and then Rametta would take those documents and barge into the offices of government officials and harangue them about why it was wrong to put a slab of pavement through land that was supposed to be safe from such things.

He drove to Pensacola and Jacksonville and everywhere in between, spending thousands of dollars of his own money battling to keep Serenova the way it was just because he liked taking his grandchildren to the place.

I asked Pasco County’s project manager, Sam Beneck, if engineers had considered rerouting its Ridge Road Extension so it would actually preserve the preserve, as Rametta and Sommerville asked.

“We looked at a ton of options,” he said. “We never found anything compelling to change from our preferred alternative.” Avoiding the preserve might have driven up the construction cost, he explained.

Yet in trying to counter all of Rametta’s objections and the reluctance of federal officials to approve their wetlands permit, Pasco officials have repeatedly refined their plans, reducing the acres of wetlands to be destroyed by about 80 percent, according to Beneck.

The permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved in December requires more than a dozen bridges over the wetlands – although Rametta has already found where the county cut down cypress trees as part of building the “wetland-saving” bridges.

He has joined forces with the Sierra Club to sue to overturn the permit, with the hopes that the county will be ordered to demolish everything it is now in a rush to build.

I first met Rametta and Sommerville back in the mid-2000s, when we took a ride on rusty bikes out to see the beauty of Serenova. I called Rametta up this week to ask him about why he had kept on fighting to stop the road for 20 years.

“It’s hard to stay with something for so long,” he admitted. “But if you start something, you should finish it. It’s like a marriage – you’re in it for life.”

He’s turning 77 soon. I asked if he’s training anyone to pick up the torch from him, and he laughed and said, “That’s like asking would I like to give the virus to somebody else.”

This is far from the only example of how in Florida the word “preserve” doesn’t really mean “preserved.”

In Orlando, the Central Florida Expressway Authority voted unanimously last year to build a $790-million toll road across the  1,800-acre Split Oak Forest – land that was set aside as a preserve to make up for environmental destruction elsewhere in Central Florida (sound familiar?)

As Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell observed last week, “Please take a moment to re-read the phrase…’a toll road slated to cut through an environmental preserve.’ Do you realize how whackadoo that is?”

Expressway authority spokesman Brian Hutching told me that the original plan called for slicing the preserve in two, but the authority had redesigned the road so it would just lop off a corner. If they had avoided the preserve, he said, they would have had to run the road over houses and businesses and churches.

“You’re not going to build a new road anywhere in Central Florida without impacting something,” he said.

But Gloria Pickar, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, has been arguing that destroying a preserve violates the state Constitution, as well as common sense.

“From our perspective, preserved forever means forever, and not just until some developer wants to put a road through it,” she said.

Meanwhile, up in the Panhandle community of Gulf Breeze, a home-building company bought 12 acres of wetlands that were supposed to be protected from development by a conservation easement and then marked out lot lines for turning them into a new subdivision.

A neighbor named Liz Pavelick, a retiree who says she enjoys browsing the county property appraiser’s website, spotted the changes proposed by Breland Homes Coastal LLC, and fired off concerned emails to local and state officials. (Breland did not respond to a request for comment, nor did it comment to the Pensacola News Journal, which first broke this story.)

“I just about lost my mind,” Pavelick told me. The responses she got told her not to worry.

“Impacts to this easement, including clearing of trees, is expressly prohibited,” Elizabeth Orr, interim secretary of the Pensacola office of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, wrote back.

But Pavelick is worried the developer will clear the land anyway and count any fines as just the cost of doing business. If that happens, she and a friend plan to tie themselves to the trees to stop it.

All in all it’s been quite a lesson about Florida for the Illinois transplant.

“I assumed that anything in a preserve would stay that way,” Pavelick told me.

Oh, dear, I thought, she still hasn’t learned the Florida language, has she?

Rametta, Sommerville, Pickar and Pavelick all remind me of a quote from a 1961 John D. MacDonald novel called Where Is Janet Gantry?: “Somebody has to be tireless…or the fast buck operators would asphalt the entire coast, fill every bay and slay every living thing incapable of carrying a wallet.”

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Craig Pittman
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.