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.

Blowback On Polk’s Soil Plant Decision Continues

Just days after representatives for the controversial BS Ranch & Farm soil manufacturing plant near Lakeland withdrew their request for approval of an operational plan by the Planning Commission, BS has sued Polk County.

This is the latest even in a two-year saga that was worsened by Polk’s permissive development approval process and credulous approach to developer claims.

The Ledger reports BS is seeking an injunction to halt implementation of a change in the county’s growth plan approved unanimously Oct. 3 that reclassified soil manufacturing plants as a solid waste facility.

That vote overturned a unanimous vote the County Commission April 19, 2016, that, at BS Ranch’s request, removed soil manufacturing plants from the being reviewed as solid waste facilities. The effect of that change was to reduce the amount of review any soil plant would face in getting a development permit.

The plant’s owners seemed uninterested in scrutiny since it opened without receiving either county zoning approval or state environmental permits. All were issued after the fact.

The 2016 vote came amid glowing staff reports about how wonderful and benign the operation would be, its benefit to the county’s economy etc. etc. etc.

However, it became clear shortly after the plant opened that the PR tour didn’t reveal that sometimes there are odor problems. Even state environmental regulators had to step in and warn company officials they needed to correct the problems.

That led to the decision to reverse the 2016 growth plan change, especially after the commission’s attempt to resolve the issue were met with hostility and obfuscation by BS Ranch’s owners and consultants.

The discussion also led to the proposal to hold a hearing on the details of a facilities operating plan, whose lack was one of the key issues to emerge from a code enforcement hearing on the plant’s alleged violations of county codes.

The hearing officer sided with BS on most of its points, citing the county staff’s decision to let the plant operate even though it didn’t have all of its permits. Polk County disputed that finding.

Meanwhile, how this latest legal action will turn out will be up to a judge.

Two of BS’ claims outlined in the newspaper report don’t make sense.

BS claims it didn’t know about the county’s decision to change the growth plan. It occurred at advertised public hearings before the Planning Commission and the County Commission. It was no secret.

BS’ request for the injunction also alleged commissioners met in secret before the Oct. 3 vote to discuss it in violate of Florida’s public meetings law. No date for that meeting was mentioned. Florida law does allow elected officials to meet in private with their legal staff to discuss pending legal matters. The dates and times of the meetings must be advertised, however.


BS Ranch Withdraws Permit Request

BS Ranch withdrew its request for approval of a revised operational permit before the Polk County Planning Commission Wednesday, The Ledger reports.

BS Ranch’s consultant alleged Polk County was trying to reopen a case it had already approved, according to the brief news report.

Polk County had originally approved the permit for the soil-manufacturing plant as an after-the-fact permit, as did state agencies.

However, it became clear that the PR tour Polk officials had received that led to the plant’s initial approval left out some important details about potential problems. These included odor and water pollution.

The conditions in the proposed recommendation for approval of the facility’s operation plan were intended to correct that oversight.

Meanwhile, there are still pending court cases to bring the facility into compliance, but so far Polk officials have been unable to legally force the company to cease operations.

The only thing the County Commission has been able to do is to repeal the special, less-rigorous development review of soil-manufacturing plants, but that will only apply to new applications, not to BS Ranch.

As Hardy said to Laurel, it’s fine mess they’ve gotten us into.


Ancient Islands Sierra Addresses Legislators

Bruce Kistler, chair of the Ancient Islands Sierra Club group, addressed members of the Polk legislative delegation Tuesday in Bartow during the delegation’s annual meeting to hear public input prior to session.

Kistler emphasized three important environmental issues.

–Banning fracking to prevent damage to water supplies and further fragmentation of wildlife habitat with new roads.

–Supporting full funding of Florida Forever as mandated by voters in a 2014 constitutional referendum.

–Ensuring that water management districts reserve adequate water for natural systems to prevent further environmental damage.

Kistler also offered the resources of Sierra Club experts for legislators seeking additional information to deal properly with these important issues.

Legislators also heard support for Florida Forever funding from representatives of the Heartland Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the Polk County League of Women Voters.

Legislators offered no comments in response to the presentations.