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Florida's Top Wildlife Official Had Private Plan To Develop Condos On Environmentally Sensitive Land

Florida's top wildlife official is seeking the right to dredge and fill submerged land that's owned by his company in Palm Beach County, without approval from state regulatory agencies.

Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has in the past proposed development of three condo buildings, homes and a marina on the site — a location that's an important natural habitat for fish, sea turtles, manatees and seagrass.

Mangroves in the Lake Worth Lagoon with Singer Island hotels in the distance.

Barreto is a former police officer and now a politically connected lobbyist and real estate developer. He was appointed to the FWC by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 but had also served on it for 10 years prior. He has thrice chaired the committee that brought the Super Bowl to Florida.

According to the Palm Beach Post, Barreto's company, Government Lot 1 LLC, bought the nearly 19-acre site in Singer Island in 2016 for $425K. Property records show it was valued at $5,594 every year for a decade before jumping to $150K in 2020. 

Barreto's company in 2018 filed a plan to develop mansions, a marina and 330 condos on the Singer Island site, but the South Florida Water Management District found the plan couldn't be approved without extensive environmental mitigation.

So, in Palm Beach Circuit Court, Barreto's company in August moved to reopen a legal case from 30 years earlier involving the site's prior owners. Barreto wants the court's final order supplemented to say that no state regulatory approvals are needed to move ahead with development. Federal approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, however, would be needed.

Barreto told the Post his land was part of 300-plus acres that the state sold off for development nearly a century ago. He said a nearby state park was established for conservation, and if the state wants to conserve his property, it can buy him out.

At an FWC meeting Friday, critics urged the FWC board to stop Barreto, fearing that his moves could have terrible implications for the environment, wildlife and fisheries statewide. 

Barreto told the Post the matter shouldn't interfere with his FWC duties and "I am prepared to take appropriate action in response to any unlawful interference with my property rights."

The Post pointed out that winning the right to develop the submerged land would make it more valuable, whether Barreto's company actually developed it, sold it to another developer, or sold it to the state for conservation.

Protecting the environment has been an uphill battle in Florida, where the state legislature continuously diverts funds meant for conservation and former Gov. Rick Scott gutted the state's Department of Environmental Protection when he was in office. 

"I can't believe we've got to fight you guys, the guys who are supposed to be protecting [the environment]," local resident Matt Lynch said at the Friday meeting, according to the Post.