SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. (FNN NEWS) – Seminole Soil & Water Conservation District (SSWCD) Supervisor Judith Benson retired from the district in December 2018, but not without leaving a legacy—and a warning—in her wake. In an exclusive interview with Florida National News, the former Board Chair and diehard environmentalist, who also works in the irrigation industry by trade, detailed the accomplishments she’s most proud of and the unfinished business that overshadows her heart…and the environment.
SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT SOIL & WATER CONSERVATION SUPERVISORS?
Chairwoman Benson explained that while a Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) Supervisor is an unpaid political position, there are advantages that offset the absence of payment. For one, SWCDs are state agencies, therefore elected supervisors are given political capital at the state level, and, given the districts’ environmental impact, at the federal level as well. SWCDs can partner with:
State Government Agencies
- Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS)
- Florida Office of Agricultural Water Policy
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection
- Florida Department of Citrus
- St. Johns River Water Management District
- South Florida Water Management District
Federal Government Agencies
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Florida
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD)
- Florida Farm Bureau
- Association of Florida Conservation Districts (AFCD)
Chairwoman Benson highlighted that the Florida Association of Conservation Districts as “one of the most powerful networks for district supervisors.”
On the federal level, SWCDs work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS), which helps the districts get federal funding for community programs and initiatives with the help of conservationists assigned to designated SWCDs.
And that’s just the organizational connections. Benson noted the supervisor’s significance in a community as its environmental voice. “The general public doesn’t know the value of the district,” she said. “Supervisors are the only unpaid elected officials in the state, [so] what the supervisors put into the board is pure devotion.” She explained that while conservation districts are not a regulatory body in the counties, they are great resources for individuals on challenges such as flooding issues, and historic lakes and ponds disappearing. Supervisors are “a pure advocate for constituents like no other elected officials.”
BENSON’S MILESTONES AND IMPACT
As a Seminole County resident for over twenty years, Benson is no stranger to the environmental challenges facing the county she represented. As the President of Clear Water PSI (Products & Services, Inc.), which she founded in 1997, she offers irrigation services and consulting to businesses and residents, helping them maximize water efficiency for irrigation with the help of the latest industry technologies.
She made history in June 2010, being the first irrigation contractor to ever receive the St. Johns River Water Management District’s (SJRWMD) Bob Owens Award for her volunteer work on the Florida Water Star Program. In October of that year, her company received national recognition with the EPA’s WaterSense Partner of the Year Award (below).
Benson’s Milestones as a Conservation District Supervisor
As expected, Benson encountered a series of challenges and milestones during her tenure as Supervisor. The milestone she is most proud of is preventing the district from being dissolved. “The Seminole Soil & Water Conservation District was losing their footing with the county”, she explained. She added that the county was building a service to make its charter mirror the SWCD, taking tax dollars to put the district under its control.
She explained that the SSWCD falls under the unfunded mandate in the Florida Statutes. “The county defunded [the district] in 06-07 and to this day will not fund any S&W budgetary needs,” Benson shared. She recalled that she was Board Chair for six years, “volunteering 40-60 hours a month, financially supporting the district as needed.” As the PR liaison for the district, she also had a heart to educate Seminole County residents about the district and how it serves them.
Another milestone for Benson was getting on Seminole County’s Development Review Committee (DRC), which is the entity new developers must submit an app to for urban development and construction. Stakeholders and committee members review the applications, and water and stormwater measures are included in the review. Each conservation district has a seat on the committee; supervisors may impact how much land is converted for urban development. After DRC, a developer’s proposal goes to the appointed planning and zoning board, then moves to the county commissioners.
Benson said she had to “elbow my way to the table” for an important reason: Seminole County is one of the fastest growing counties in urban development from rural lands. If not for her presence on Seminole County’s DRC, “[Seminole] voters lose their choice.” She feels the district’s status within the county improved as a result.
She also joined the Council of Local Governments in Seminole County (CALNO) as well 11 different organizations connected to the county to remain engaged and be the bridge between the district and the county.
Benson’s other major milestone was fighting for a backyard chicken ordinance–which began with a resident’s complaint against a neighbor who had live backyard chickens. The complaint came before the County Commission, which took no action, and according to Benson, due to the language of the citation, it should never have been issued. She took it on and was instrumental in bringing the ordinance to pass, which was helpful for a resident who raised the chickens to harvest fresh eggs, many of which he donated to his church to provide for those who had little or no food. The ordinance allowed him to keep his chickens and continue his service to his fellow parishioners.
Benson’s Impact in Orange County
Benson didn’t only serve the residents of Seminole County. While she had approached Seminole County to update the county codes on water conservation, but made no headway, she was in fact called upon to write the water conservation codes for Orange County and sat on the advisory board for the City of Orlando’s Green Initiative.
WHAT REMAINS ON BENSON’S HEART
Moving forward, Benson said she has many mixed emotions in leaving, but is “ready to write a new chapter.” She said her retirement was “a bittersweet moment” because “the rural boundary is severely under attack,” and she regrets not staying because of that fact. She hopes that the most recently elected supervisors carefully choose their next chair. “In hindsight, chairmanship is very important.”
For the districts, she had this advice: Each district working in NRCS should develop a five-year plan (which can be requested as public record) because it lets voters know what the districts want to accomplish. The plan is important and instrumental because districts are vying for public’s attention to accomplish the plan since they are comprised of volunteers (supervisors) and unfunded. Benson made the district’s plan public and found that it was beneficial.
“Supervisor Benson did an incredible job during her time with the Seminole Soil & Water Conservation District,” said Daisy Morales, Board Chair and Supervisor for the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District. “I went attended the December meeting and didn’t even realize it was her final meeting, but I’m proud of her accomplishments and look forward to what’s next for her.”
Benson sees this as an opportunity to discover what to do with the new time and promises to keep up with the county’s agro-urban development. “If you use your God-given talents and follow an undetermined path, you are going to do well and leave good things behind.”
Mellissa Thomas is Editor for Florida National News. firstname.lastname@example.org