MIAMI – Jan. 28, 2011 – A settlement in a federal lawsuit could help protect turtles that nest on Florida beaches but also potentially make it tougher for some landowners to get federal flood insurance – particularly for new development.
The agreement was announced Wednesday by two environmental groups – the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Florida Wildlife Federation – that contend federal emergency managers have rubber-stamped insurance for coastal construction without studying the impacts on the primary nesting grounds of five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles.
Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the National Flood Insurance Program amounted to a taxpayer-supported subsidy that encourages construction where it shouldn’t be – at the edge of Florida’s hurricane vulnerable beaches. “What we’re trying to do ultimately is reduce exposure of the public to this liability,” he said. “We need to pull back a little further from the beaches.”
The two groups, along with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, say the settlement is one step in a broader effort needed to protect sea turtle species – loggerhead, green, hawksbill, leatherback and Kemp’s Ridleys – that face mounting threats from development, oil spills and other pollution, fishing gear and seawalls and other armoring designed to protect coastal structures from storms and rising sea levels.
‘A tough year’
“Turtles have had a tough year in Florida,” said Gary Appelson, policy coordinator for the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Hundreds were recovered from waters and beaches tainted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and cold snaps last year left hundreds more stunned or dead.
The settlement between the groups and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), approved last week by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Moore in Miami, doesn’t provide turtles any additional protections on its own. It asks FEMA, which oversees the flood insurance program, to ask two other agencies that share responsibility for protecting sea turtles to scrutinize the flood insurance program.
Those agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, will then have 11 months to issue a detailed “biological assessment” of any impacts.
FEMA responded to questions with a brief statement from Brad Carroll, a spokesman in Washington, confirming that the agency had agreed to the assessment in exchange for the environmental groups dropping their civil lawsuit.
Jim Murphy, lead counsel for the NWF, admitted it was difficult to predict how the settlement might affect the controversial federal flood insurance program, which is running about $18 billion in the red in large part because of losses associated with Hurricane Katrina.
But the settlement could – at least potentially – have serious implications for Florida, the state with the largest number of flood policies.
The groups stressed that they weren’t aiming to eliminate flood insurance from areas already heavily developed, such as Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale, but they do want FEMA to stop issuing new policies – particularly in flood-prone areas. They also want to end policy renewals for coastal structures heavily damaged by storms or erosion – a step that would force landowners to rebuild at their own risk.
“It would be our hope that any restrictions on development would be minimal and target the highest-risk properties in Florida,” Murphy said.
In 2005, the NWF won a similar suit that affected the Florida Keys. Moore, who also heard that case, blocked new construction in the Florida Keys from receiving federal flood insurance in places where rare creatures such as the Key deer roam. His ruling, upheld on appeal, affected several hundred acres of privately owned land in the Keys.
Environmentalists also called on the state to strengthen policies to protect beaches and turtle nesting, including more purchases of undeveloped coastal land and more limits on lighting.
Environmentalists say limiting coastal development will pay off in the long run by protecting landscape that draws tourists.
“We need to protect our beach,” he said. “What’s good for sea turtles is good for Florida’s economy.”
Copyright © 2011 The Miami Herald, Curtis Morgan. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.