Palm Beach Gardens city leaders greenlighted the bulldozers early this month, cheering on the clearing of Briger Forest, the last major tract of undeveloped land along I-95 in Palm Beach County. Jobs! Progress! Townhomes!
But as night follows day, local environmental activists soon replied with a renewed assault on the developers' plans, pressing on with a challenge to the South Florida Water Management District's permits for the project.
Briger Forest, while not virgin, is relatively unspoiled. Straddling I-95 north of Palm Beach Gardens, covering almost 700 acres of land, it is a mix of hardwood forest, freshwater marshes, and prairie, an important locale for migrating birds. In addition to the Eastern Indigo Snake, an endangered species, it is home to the gopher tortoise, wood stork, snowy egret, and hand fern.
The developers' plans are tied to the local establishment's Ahab-like quest for the White Whale of bioscience dollars, the idea that public investment in projects like the Scripps Research Institute will ultimately bring a flood of money and jobs to the area. (Meh.) Instead of wildlife, the suits see about 5 million square feet of biotech and office space on part of the Briger Tract, thousands of homes, a 300-room hotel, and assorted retail space.
The petition to the SFWMD, brought by three representatives of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, charges that the district has failed to assure (1) adequate measures to protect the Eastern Indigo Snake and other Briger species and (2) a hazardous waste management plan sufficient to protect residents of the proposed housing, as well as to prevent pollution of the Intracoastal Waterway. The petition charges:
the current permits applied for cannot be approved without the submission of a hazardous waste plan at this part of the application process. The Scripps Research Institute of Florida across from the Briger Tract already tests on dangerous viruses and bacterias, uses radioactive substances, tests on countless mice and flies, and will be testing on dogs, cats, and even primates if Phase II opens its doors. With families within the planned development and families/individuals already living around the development, it is irresponsible to not provide this as public information and require it before approval of your permit.
The SFWMD's position -- as stated in an order of May 20 in which the enviros' original petition was denied, with leave to amend -- is that the petitioners lack standing to challenge the permits and that the objections to the permits have already been adjudicated.
The enviros' latest filing mirrors charges brought in a notice of violation filed last fall with the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. While neither agency has filed a formal response, FWS spokesman Ken Warren emailed this to New Times:
We're standing by the decision outlined in our biological opinion issued on this project on March 23, 2011. We have no plans to amend or update that opinion. The bottom line: We don't believe this individual, specific project jeopardizes the continued existence of the federally listed eastern indigo snake.
Do we really need more housing in Palm Beach County, so much so that Briger Forest must go? In the grandiose imaginations of local and state officials, the Scripps Briger project is part of a global war for economic primacy in which the "So-Flo mega-region" is up against high-tech mega regions in China, India, and Brazil. Briger Forest may simply end up as collateral damage.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.