STRAIGHT TALK: City needs full-time environmental specialist on staff

Steve Stefanides

In the early spring of 1986, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the pristine nature of our little island. Of course, much has changed since then for me as well as for you. I’ve witnessed the inevitable growth that has come along since the time I initially came across the Jolley Bridge and especially since I moved here fulltime in 1990.

I think it’s just natural for us to long for simpler days and to maybe see things as they were when we first discovered this little piece of paradise. I’m sure the Calusa would like to see things go back to the early days when they inhabited the island we all now call home, but we know that’s not going to happen.

There has to be a delicate balance between man and his environment, and in the last several decades we’ve come to understand that in a much clearer way. We’ve seen some of the mistakes that have been made as we’ve studied the errors from the past and applied those lessons going forward as we share this tiny planet.

Recently, Nancy Richie, the city’s environmental specialist who held that position for almost 15 years, walked out of the doors at City Hall to begin the next chapter in her life. The loving wife and proud Gator Mom and graduate from Gainesville will move on to new challenges and opportunities.

The respect and love for her within City Hall overflowed when co-workers and friends gave her a heart-felt send-off as she worked her last day there.

Although I have nothing but respect and admiration for her, this column is not about Nancy, the person, for her dedication to her calling in life and the contributions to the community will stand the test of time. It is about how the city will proceed to protect the environment and the delicate balance we need.

One of the reasons given for incorporation lay in the desire to handle our affairs from this side of the Jolley Bridge. A majority of islanders believed we were more in tune with the needs of this community than someone 20 miles away who didn’t have a vested interest in what would be best for us.

We believed a vision for the community was best held by those who owned, invested and slept here; by those that would interact within the community daily and had a special sense of ownership in the future of the island.

The same could be said for one of the key portions of what makes this island so special, the environment. We understood the special significance of the connection between the human elements and those of nature, which is why we invested in the position Nancy held.

The office of environmental specialist was an important portion of that understanding of the delicate balance between what sometimes may have be seen as competing interests in a world that is sometimes moving forward faster than we’d like.

There have been some discussions amongst decision makers in how to fill that void with the departure of Nancy. Some have even hinted at the utilization of “outsourcing” to private enterprise. That path would be a mistake in my opinion, as the risks that are a result of failure in this field will be unrecoverable at best. Nancy set the bar and the standard of excellence too high to entrust it to those with no vested interest in the community.

One of those areas she excelled in was in the education process of enlightening the general public to the issues we face. Whether it be with nesting turtles, the potential dangers and remediation from the BP disaster, protection of our beach, infractions by contractors that impact the environment and the review of permitting issues, the office has an important role to play moving forward.

The continuing efforts to educated our public, encourage volunteer endeavors such as the Beach Stewards Program and the involvement in the creation of the largest artificial reef in North America right off our shores are just a few of the endeavors.

Many took great pride when the island was named the No. 1 Island in America, and the beauty and splendor of our beaches and the lands that abut them is worth the investment of resources in the position that helps to protect them for future generations.

This responsibility of this office is a fulltime job, and as such the need for leadership must come from an individual who has that responsibility and shares the support of the community along with civic leaders, not a contracted entity whose major benefit comes in a lower cost.