Illegally Operating Soil Plant May Be Legally Shut Down

BS Farm and Ranch may not be stinking up the air in east Lakeland much longer.

The County Commission, led by Commissioner George Lindsey, told the plant’s owner-operators and their consultants Tuesday that they were tired of the complaints and the false promises and the evasions. They told County Attorney Michael Craig to take whatever legal action he could to shut down the plant until the owners comply with their county permit conditions and asked for a peer review of the plant’s operations plan to see if it contains any flaws.

This was an unusual move for the County Commission, which rarely says no when it comes to new development.

Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland sent a letter to Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials March 17 asking to be kept in the loop on the progress of the agency’s review of BS’ compliance. No other local legislators have weighed in as far as I know.

The commission’s action was unusual, but as I wrote yesterday, the problem may not have occurred somewhere else where scofflaw zoning applicants are not treated with such deference as they are in Polk County.

To recap, BS opened a business without proper county zoning permits and without a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,, got caught and was allowed by both jurisdictions to continue operating for a year or so while the owners sought permits, changes in the county growth plan and the county development regulations. This is standard operating procedure in Polk County.

“They have never been legally operating,” Craig acknowledged during the meeting, though that was already an open secret.

Lindsey also Tuesday set in motion a move to repeal the development code change that set the stage for attracting more soil manufacturing plants to Polk County.

Repealing a development code change, absence its replacement with a more up-to-date version, is unprecedented.

There’s a back story to this fiasco. It appears that BS had the support of Averett Septic Tank Co., whose representatives were in the audience Tuesday filming the testimony. BS did not have the backing of some of the other local septic tank businesses, whose owners are skeptical of BS’s operation and have been working with another company whose operating procedures they do like to set up shop in Polk County, but at a more remote location.

Part of the problem is the fact that BS picked a site in the middle of an urban area rather than somewhere more remote. The odor from their plant was so bad that even their neighbors in the industrial park were complaining. There have been off-site nuisances from time to time in the past at that industrial park though most of the tenants operations cause no problems.

But the other problem was even after BS was caught stinking up the area for at least a mile around, they tried to shift the blame and played word games with DEP staffers trying to work with them to bring them into compliance administratively. These days DEP rarely fines anyone for anything, according to analyses of recent case activity.

By the way, the atmosphere became a little tense toward the end of that portion of the commission meeting. BS’ owner cursed at residents after failing to win any sympathy by projecting images of Iron Eyes Cody, the Sicilian actor who played a Native American in those anti-litter ads you may have seen years ago that were really an attempt to shift attention away from the problem caused by lack of bottle deposits.

The meeting is archived on PGTV, available at www.polk-county.net . It was entertaining.

The Stench Of Permissive Planning No Surpise

Where can someone open a business on land not zoned for it, secure in the thought that they’ll be able to persuade county officials to amend the growth plan and development regulations to accommodate them to assure approval of an after-the-fact permit?

Polk County, of course.

That summarizes what happened at the site of the unfortunately named BS Ranch & Farm, which is operating a soil-manufacturing plant in an industrial park on Maine Avenue bordered by residential areas in east Lakeland.

Despite repeated assurances by county planners, who are sometimes hard to tell from representatives of permit applicants at public hearings, that there would be no odor, it didn’t work out that way.

The odor was detectable as far away as Circle B Bar Reserve.

It was so bad that even the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which in recent years has gained a reputation for soft-pedaling the shortcomings of permit holders, concluded there was a problem that needed to be fixed though there was no word in press reports on any fines.

Polk County code enforcement stepped in, too. It has scheduled a hearing for next month. In the meantime, the company will be allowed to continue operating.

The County Commission is still considering how it wants to deal with this problem.

The matter will be discussed at today’s commission meeting.

The accommodation by county staff that led to this situation didn’t happen by accident.

It reflects an official county policy for dealing with development permits that was completed last year and reflected existing practices.

The written policy was notable for directing county staffers reviewing development permits that they should be “advocates, not adversaries.”

I questioned that at the time.

My position is the staff should be neutral reviewers representing the public interest, not any other interest, so that they keep things in the proper perspective.

That would avoid the sometimes tortuous arguments county planners make to justify approval of cases that come before the Planning Commission and the County Commission.

However, the planners have their marching orders from the a crowd that hardly ever sees a development proposal they won’t eagerly embrace and to which they offer tax breaks and impose cut-rate impact fees.

Many residents think this approach stinks.

This time there’s proof.

 

Another Polk Lower Aquifer Well In Works

The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board will consider a lease for another Lower Floridan Aquifer test well complex at its next regular meeting March 28 in Brooksville.

The property is in Lake Wales in a citrus grove south of Lake Belle.

This is part of an ongoing effort by the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative to continue to explore beneath Polk County to find water sources that Swiftmud would allow local utilities to use to deal with growth-related water demand.

The approach has drawn criticism because of questions of whether this is a sustainable long-term solution to expected deficits in projected water supply demands in comparison to permitted withdrawals.

Meanwhile, Swiftmud officials are also scheduled to consider purchasing an easement near Lake Trout at the Polk-Highlands line east of U.S. 27 as part of the Central Florida Water Initiative effort to get a better idea of how groundwater withdrawals and changes in aquifer levels affect the maintenance of lake levels in this part of the region.

Swiftmud has determined in the past that groundwater pumping has affected lake levels in Polk County, particularly Crooked Lake.

Details of these agenda item are available at http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/ .

Go to the meetings tab and click on the agenda packet.

There is an executive summary at the top of the file, but if you scroll down you will find more detailed information such as maps, contracts, etc.

Swiftmud meetings are televised and can be viewed on line.

 

 

 

Amendment 1 Funding Diversions Continue

Amendment 1 was supposed to help to save the Everglades.

Instead, it is becoming somewhat like the Everglades.

That is, the money that voters authorized in 2014 for spending for conservation lands to reboot the gutted Florida Forever program is being diverted in ways that resemble the way South Florida water management system diverts water the Everglades needs to satisfy the political demands of agriculture and development interests.

Ever since voters overwhelming approved the measure, the Florida Legislature has worked hard to make sure it isn’t used as the voters or the amendment’s sponsors intended, falling back on legalistic arguments about the ballot language’s loose wording.

So, instead of working to take care of the backlog of high-priority conservation purchases in this part of the state along the Lake Wales Ridge, the Green Swamp and the Kissimmee River Valley, legislators are proposing to use the money for beach renourishment to keep the tourism industry happy and for a variety of water supply projects to keep the development industry happy.

The Legislature has also allowed state agencies to use Amendment 1 money for routine operating expenses, which is not only inappropriate, but short-sighted.

This is a problem because with the economy improving and development pressure ramping up again, the owners of some of the land targeted for conservation purchase and protection may get tired of waiting for the state to act and sell the land to someone else.

In addition, as the real estate market heats up again, the cost of the land will increase because its market value will increase, which will affect how far the conservation acquisition dollars go.

Some legislators are treating the Amendment 1 money as though it was part of the general appropriations fund that can be used for anything rather than restricted fund that’s only supposed to be spent on certain things.

This kind of financial deceit is nothing new in Tallahassee, but it’s usually not this blatant.

If legislators want funds to improve water infrastructure or any other worthwhile public project in Florida, why don’t they take a more honest approach and come up with a logical funding source that has some rational nexus rather than raiding another state fund for the sake of expediency.

It’s hard to characterize this as anything but grand theft.

Most people who get caught doing this are sent to jail, not to Tallahassee.

Maybe Florida needs another constitutional amendment to fix that problem, too.

Looking For Everglades Northern Reservoir? Try The Lakes

I’ve been following the debate over whether to store water north of south of Lake Okeechobee with some interest.

It’s complicated because part of it involves trying to make sure the crappy water in Lake Okeechobee doesn’t foul the coastal estuaries again and the crappy water in the rest of the South Florida water management system doesn’t’ either let the Everglades die of thirst or salt water intrusion or upstream pollution.

If you want to deliver polluted water, canals are your guy. If you don’t, reservoirs are an alternative.

That is, you have to store and treat water somewhere what’s left of the system if you’re in touch with reality and realize it’s 2017 and not 1817.

My question is rather than fighting over the cost of building new reservoirs north of the lake or south of the lake, why not rethink using an existing Northern Reservoir of sorts. It’s called the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.

The Everglades plan calls for 200,000 acre feet of storage, plus some additional land for treatment.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and concluded you have about half of that in the major lakes in the chain as well as some connected wetland systems that are planned to be rehydrated anyway if you adjusted the regulated levels a bit.

This approach, which I’m sure has been figured somewhere into someone’s calculations, has the additional advantage of storing the water containing a lot of the upper basin’s pollution from sewer plants and stormwater runoff as well as the traditional agricultural manure and fertilizer contributions and legacy loads from past practices.

This isn’t everything that’s needed, but it seems to be quicker and lower tech and less contentious than some of the discussion that’s going on.

I’m just saying.

Legislators’ Tax Bill Has Environmental Downside

The news out of Tallahassee is unfailingly disturbing these days.

One piece of legislation to watch is a committee bill that squeaked out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

While most of the bill’s language is a big concern to local governments, because it would diminish their home-rule powers, there’s a provision that could severely limit referendums.

This affects us in Polk County because there is still some thought of eventually attempting to mount a renewal of the Environmental Lands tax to purchase additional lands to finish the job started with funds from the 1994 referendum.

The referendum, which imposed a property tax at a rate of 20 cents per $1,000 of appraised value, expired in 2015 and was not continued even though it could have been administratively. That’s because the money as not used to purchase bonds but was instead pursued on a more fiscally sound pay-as-you-go basis.

Actually, the County Commission did continue the tax, they just decided to divert half the revenue to road projects and the rest to parks and ambulances.

If there were to be another referendum, it would occur sometime after 2018, when the Polk County School Board is scheduled to place a sales tax referendum on the ballot to pay for school construction costs. Putting more than one tax referendum on a ballot is poor politics, which is why 2020 would be the earliest the environmental referendum could occur.

Polk’s charter properly requires all tax referendums to be placed on the general election ballot.

The proposed bill’s limit on referendums would prohibit them in some situations, depending on what the County Commission has decided on tax rates in recent years. It would also require 60 percent approval.

Majority rule would go out the window.

If that 60 percent provision had been in place in 1994, there would be no Environmental Lands Program, no Circle B Bar Reserve and perhaps no Colt Creek State Park. The rest of the archipelago of local environmental preserves we can enjoy today would not exist.

I don’t have any information on whether this idea has attracted any support in the Florida Senate, which would be necessary for passage.

Polk Vision Reboots; Can Environment Be Included?

The Ledger reports that Polk Vision is planning a series of public meetings around Polk County during the next two months to hear from citizens about their ideas about what can be done to make this a better place for all of us.

I wonder if there’s any interest in adding completion of the work to protect the natural environment for the sake of future generations to the agenda.

The 2004 meetings after Polk Vision originally organized served as a catalyst to get more money for Polk’s underfunded park system.

Polk County’s voters got together in 1994 and told the County Commission they wanted to tax themselves to buy and manage some of Polk’s remaining environmental jewels. That program was a success, but the work is incomplete.

There are still some missing pieces, some land whose purchase would fill gaps that would accomplish important things. It would protect entire ecosystems rather than mere fragments through the ownership of larger contiguous tracts that could be fenced, managed with prescribed fire and restored to further protect globally imperiled species.

This primarily involves land west of Crooked Lake, the only Outstanding Florida Water in Polk, though some land along the Peace River and in the Green Swamp Area of Critical of State Concern may offer opportunities as well.

The next Polk Vision meeting will occur at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Auburndale Civic Center in downtown Auburndale and will continue through the next month or so, wrapping up at April 13 at the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.

The meetings occur at different times of the day, so pick a date or time that fits your schedule. All but two of meetings occur during the work day, which may limit attendance for some people who may want to get involved.

To view the meeting schedule, go to http://portal.polkvision.com/ .