Environmentalists, Business Lobby Square Off In Constitution Fight

That didn’t take long.

South Florida environmental activist Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, earlier this fall proposed amendments to elevate environmental affairs to cabinet status the same as the agriculture industry now enjoys and to give citizens standing to enforce anti-pollution laws.

She argues this would emulate similar measures passed successfully in other states, such as Montana, where residents value their natural resources.

There are more details in The Ledger.

Unsurprisingly, Associated Industries of Florida, one of the top business lobbying groups in the state, is pushing to keep these proposals from ever reaching the ballot, WUSF reports.

AIF argues this would lead to unnecessary litigation that would hurt business. The group did not address how business pollution affects defenseless people.

If you’d like to participate by commenting, go to the public involvement link.

Polk Tries To Educate On Recycling; It Could Try Harder

Polk officials put on a televised work session Friday to try to respond to frequent, recurring criticisms of its new curbside recycling program that began Oct. 1.

The criticisms came after county officials decided to stop accepting glass and most kinds of plastic food and beverage containers because at the moment no one wants the stuff. And, even if Polk agreed to continue to accept these materials for public relations purposes, the material would still end up in the landfill and diminish the value of everything else in the recycling piles at the processing centers.

This reflects changes in world markets for plastic waste and the fact that U.S. entrepreneurs appear much less interested than their European counterparts in glass recycling.

There are two main causes for the public criticism of the changes.

One is the belief that everything can and should be recycled, which is false.

The other is the poor communication with the public about what’s acceptable and not acceptable. For instance, at Friday’s meeting was the first public acknowledgement that magazines should not be put in recycling carts even though the county’s web site said all paper products free of food contamination are accepted.

Meanwhile, Polk officials learned state officials are planning to back off of their 75 percent recycling rate goal, but what metric will replace it was not announced.

More later.

Polk Recycling Program Review Coming Friday

County commissioners are planning to hold a work session at 10 a.m. Friday in the commission chambers to talk about changes in the international recycling markets that Waste and Recycling Director Ana Wood contends led to her recommendation to make major changes in the curbside recycling program when the new contract began Oct. 1.

The meeting is open to the public and will be televised on PGTV.

Although Wood briefed commissioners on some of this last year when the contracts were being prepared, questions remain.

The Polk County Commission continues to get hammered from residents about the changes in the curbside recycling program.

They no longer accept any glass.

They only accept some plastic and have not been totally clear about the details.

They accept paper and cardboard, but not all paper and cardboard, though that’s not something you can find out unless you ask.

They may accept old recycling bins, but haven’t been eager to publicize that fact.

They weren’t going to provide recycling carts to customers who for a variety of reasons didn’t return the mail-in post cards until Jan. 1, but relented after enough people complained.

In other words, it has been a public relations fiasco.

Friday’s tentative program will include presentations by Wood, representatives from the private sector and someone who is being billed as an authority on the plastics market, which reportedly has been affected by relatively cheap oil prices and quality control issues.

Meanwhile, the private waste companies reportedly are attempting to proposed legislation that would stop cities and counties from requiring recycling of materials for which there is no market—glass is at the top of the list– and allow private haulers to send loads of recyclables that contain too much contamination to the landfill instead of the recycling center.

There are questions about the details of how all of this will work, but if the legislation passes—slightly different legislation died last year– as proposed, it could send a tidal wave of changes through curbside recycling programs statewide.

Tallahassee Attacks On Growth Regs, Tree Protection Surface

The relentless attack on growth management and other important environmental protections at the local level will continue as Florida legislators prepare for the 2018 session, which begins in January.

Next year’s session of the Florida Legislature will feature more attempts to undermine local development regulations under the guise of protecting private property rights.

First, proposed legislation (HB 207 and SB 362) would force cities and counties to rewrite their growth plans to include a new element to promote private property rights and economic development.

Then the law would force local officials to rewrite their development regulations to comply with this new, made-up requirement.

The idea that private property rights are unprotected under existing law is false.

Provisions ranging from the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights to various state laws such as the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act already cover this issue.

What the bill does instead is to tilt growth-management decisions in favor of the private property rights of applicants at the expense of everyone else’s property rights.

This is a common gambit by some members of the development community to gain an upper hand in zoning hearings. The premise doesn’t recognize the realities of zoning decisons.

The fact is that growth decisions sometimes force local officials to make decisions based on competing private property rights claims.

The most recent example was last week’s public hearing on a proposal to push warehouse development further into residential areas in the Four Corners area and the potential precedent that sets.

That hearing set the claimed rights of a long-term real estate investor whose earlier plans for a shopping center development fell through with the claimed rights of long-term homeowners who felt betrayed by this switcheroo.

This proposed legislation could prevent elected officials from giving these competing interests a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, another assault on local government environmental stewardship is coming from legislation filed to eliminate city and county tree-protection ordinances.

The legislation (SB 574, HB 521) would prohibit any city or county regulations that regulate tree removal or tree trimming, that require mitigation for tree removal or that prohibit burying tree debris on lots larger than 2.5 acres.

If this legislation passes as currently written, the effect would create a step backward for efforts to preserve urban tree canopies and to improve development standards in many parts of the state.

Lakeland just passed its first tree protection ordinance a couple of years ago, capping a discussion that has been underway locally since the 1970s.

Allowing tree debris to be buried on site essentially allows mini-landfills. It also creates potential surprises for future private property owners who may unwittingly build a home over this buried debris and suffer foundation settling problems.

These bills reportedly are reactions to restrictions in some local ordinances. The place to deal with those kinds of complaints is at the local, not the state, level.

However, the debate needs to take everyone’s interests into account rather than only some interests.

Mosaic Official Gives Sinkhole Repair Update

Work is progressing at the portion of the gypsum stack at Mosaic’s New Wales plant where a sinkhole formed last year, Dave Jellerson told the crowd at Ancient Islands Sierra Club Thursday night.

Jellerson, Mosaic’s senior director of environmental and phosphate projects, described the work involved in discovering a sinkhole was removing water from the stack’s pond, the investigation into the size of cavity in the stack caused by the sinkhole beneath it and the work still under way to plug the connection between the stack and the Floridan aquifer to prevent further pollution from seeping into the aquifer.

He said although gypsum stacks contain small amounts of metallic and radioactive elements, the main concern for drinking water contamination are sodium and sulfates, which are the mostly likely to move through the aquifer.

No offsite well pollution due to the sinkhole has been reported.

Jellerson said 20,000 cubic yards of a cement-like substance called grout was pumped into the hole to plug it.

He said under the consent order approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Mosaic will conduct studies at its other chemical plants to determine what the risk of sinkholes are there.

This is the first sinkhole since a much larger one opened beneath another stack at the plant in 1994.

The New Wales plant, which is one of the main plants still involved in manufacturing fertilizer from the phosphate rock mined in this part of Florida, is expected to continue operating for at least another 30 years.

He said he could not say what the potential for additional sinkholes will be during the plant’s remaining operating life.

Gypsum Stacks, Sinkholes, Water Quality On Sierra Agenda Tonight

Issues surrounding last year’s sinkhole beneath a gypsum stack at Mosaic’s New Wales plant near Mulberry will be the topic of a program tonight at 7 p.m. at the monthly meeting of Ancient Islands Sierra Club at Circle B Bar Reserve.

Guest speaker will be David Jellerson, senior director of environmental and phosphate projects at Mosaic.

This was the second sinkhole to occur beneath one of the plant’s stacks in the past 25 years.

Though it was not as large and dramatic as a sinkhole that occurred in 1994, it raised the same concerns from area residents concerned about the effect the pollution flowing down the hole into the Floridan aquifer—all sinkholes connect to the Floridan aquifer—would have on drinking water in private wells at rural homesteads that do the area.

The concern was compounded by the fact that neither Mosaic nor Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials notified the public initially.

Nevertheless, the word eventually got out and was quickly spread through local media outlets, causing a public furor.

Mosaic officials did notify Polk County officials that there was a problem at the plant, but didn’t specifically inform them it was a sinkhole. Instead, a consultant wrote that the pond stack’s water loss “may have been caused by an anomaly likely connected to the Floridan aquifer system.”

The lack of notification led to a change in state law that allows residents to receive alerts about environmental incidents.

Despite the public concerns, there is no evidence that the water pollution from either of Mosaic’s sinkholes ever affected any wells outside the plant’s boundaries.

Renewable Energy, Green Swamp Sprawl Questions Face Lake Alfred

Monday night Lake Alfred officials will face a complicated discussion that will combine renewable energy, appropriate development choices in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern and the city’s future development aspirations.

Last summer TECO proposed a change in the city’s development code to allow solar farms, which were not covered in the city’s code at that point, to be allowed in many parts of the city, including residential areas.

When the case came to the city’s Planning Board last month, city staff argued that solar farms should be treated the same as power plants, which is that they should be restricted to rural areas or industrial areas. They based that on local practices in the area that contain similar restrictions.

This was a setback for TECO because it was negotiating with Berry Groves to buy land along Cass Road in rural northwest Lake Alfred in an area zoned for residential subdivisions but still dominated by citrus groves, small lakes and marshes.

Entrance of Green Swamp near proposed solar farm site

City officials argued putting a 300-acre solar farm in this undeveloped area would discourage future subdivision development. Instead, city officials wanted to steer TECO to another site, though that would still be subject to negotiation with another property owner and further zoning review.

The City Commission on Monday will consider whether to accept the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Looking at the city’s zoning map, it appears to focus most of its future residential growth to the north. Some of this is out of necessity because its ability to expand in any other direction is hampered by the fact that Winter Haven, Auburndale and Haines City have already staked out claims on any property that’s not floodprone.

A story in The Ledger revealed the city had already agreed to a $1 million subsidy in connection with plans to put a 750-home subdivision on the site by charging cut-rate impact fees. How that would impact the city’s taxpayers is unknown. If there were that kind of development approved there, road improvements would be necessary because the development would empty onto a curve on County Road 557 with limited visibility.

It is well-documented that residential developments are money pits for local governments in the long run because they require more in services than they provide in tax revenue.

Solar farms would generate some tax revenue—a 2016 constitutional amendment and subsequent legislation authorized tax breaks—and would not burden city services or local schools.

Additionally, there’s something appealingly symbolic about placing a green energy complex in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern as well as the practical result of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the water pollution from hundreds of rooftops, driveways and new streets.

Lake Alfred has a long-term opportunity here. Let us hope for a thoughtful discussion.