Skeptical Polk Commissioners OK BS Ranch Settlement Pact

Polk County commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve the settlement agreement with BS Ranch & Farm, a soil composting facility on the outskirts of Lakeland, but two said they were skeptical the settlement would really settle anything.

On paper the agreement is supposed to end eight pending court or code violation cases involving BS Ranch’s performance since it was granted an after-the-fact zoning permit in 2016 and disputes by BS Ranch’s owners that Polk County’s subsequent action to renege on part of the permit authorization damaged their business prospects.

Although Commissioner George Lindsey praised the team that put together the settlement agreement to “clean up the mess we made,” he said he had little confidence of the outcome.

Commission Chairman Todd Dantzler said if commissioners knew then what they know now, they never would have approved the project in the first place.

County Attorney Michael Craig said the main goal of the settlement was to get BS Ranch to comply with Polk County’s regulations, which include receiving proper staff review of their plans and developing an odor control procedure that has been the heart of the problems associated with the operation.

Reading through the conditions in the settlement, it seems obvious that these are the kinds of conditions that probably should have been put into force from the onset, regardless of the assurances commissioners and county staffers received during tours of the facility, which began operating without any zoning or environmental permits.

I’ve said this before, but it is worth restating that the fact that the facility opened without first getting proper permits would have sent up red flags anywhere but Polk County.

Polk County has had a history of permissive development review and writing staff reports that are intended to rationalize sometimes questionable recommendations for approval. The initial staff report, gushing with admiration for the operation, typifies this.

In fact it was telling during one of the hearings that one of the lawyers pointed out correctly that the data and analysis in the staff report that recommended revoking the earlier report was not substantially different from the staff report recommending approval.

Adding to this debacle was a Florida Department of Environmental Regulation under the Scott administration in Tallahassee that is reluctant to be anything but accommodating for companies that thumb their noses at the regulations unless there is intense public pressure to do otherwise.

By the way, the problems shouldn’t have surprised anyone who was diligent enough to look around. There was a history of problems at other facilities in Florida and around the country.

Some of the problems are the direct result of the facility’s proximity to residential areas and other businesses, not the idea of composting itself.

Composting is simply another type of recycling that has been used for centuries to return nutrients to the soil.

It just requires some adult supervision and better siting criteria.