Soil Plant Controversy Continues

The Polk County Planning Commission voted 5-1 Wednesday to recommend changes to the county’s growth plan and development regulations to more tightly review soil manufacturing plants.

The cases will now go to the County Commission, which is scheduled to send the changes to state officials for review. Following the review commissioners are scheduled to adopt the changes later this year.

The changes do not affect BS Ranch & Farm, a suburban Lakeland plant that already has a permit, though its compliance with its permit is still a matter of dispute.

The company’s revised operating plan is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in October for a recommendation to the County Commission.

Despite a claim by a BS rep at Wednesday’s hearing, this is far from voluntary.

There is a pending appeal of a code enforcement case involving the plant. County officials maintain the special magistrate erred in not upholding the county’s claim there were development code violations.

That appeal is scheduled to be heard later this month.

Meanwhile, county planners are still working with BS to come up with a management plan that will address odor problems that brought the issue to the attention of county officials.

Before then, county officials were willing to grease the skids to allow the company to receive after-the-fact permits though the company never did complete the technical review required for formal approval.

In addition, an internal memo has stated that unless BS Ranch works out these issues, county planners will recommend denial of their revised operational plan.

What would happen if that occurs is unknown at this point.

There are two outstanding issues involving the overall question of regulating such operations, which attempt to turn solid waste produced by sewer plants, septic tank companies and other similar waste streams into a useful product.

One is that this waste has to go somewhere and as Florida’s population grows—the Lakeland plant is getting truckloads of this stuff from all over the state—the amount of waste will continue to increase.

The other is that there needs to be adequate safeguards to make sure these operations don’t cause environmental pollution and public nuisances and that there is enough financial responsibility in regulations and operating plans to cover the costs of cleaning up any messes left behind if these companies go out of business.

Finally, it’s past time for Polk and other inland counties to act like some economically desperate Third World country that’s eager to unquestionably accept and gently regulate new waste treatment businesses in the name of jobs and economically development. That’s a short-sighted mentality that has guided development policy for too long.

It appears local officials are finally recognizing this, but it case they haven’t, here’s another poke in the rear to remind them they need to do better.

July’s Record Rainfall and Stormwater Policy

Last month was the rainiest July on record in Lakeland since records began around 1910, according to the National Weather Service. The gauge at the airport recorded 20.07 inches

The previous record—15.67 inches– was from 1960, which was considered the last “wet year” by those who contend declines in river and spring flow in recent years are the result of changing rainfall patterns caused by something called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

For the record, the rainfall totals elsewhere in the area were less impressive. That is reflected in Tuesday’s flow of the Peace River at Bartow, which was 148 cubic feet per second. On the same date in 1960, the flow was 2,370 cfs, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey.

Following the month’s soggy finale, courtesy of Tropical Storm Emily, The Ledger reported flooding in a mobile home park in an older section of town west of downtown Lakeland.

Unsurprisingly, city officials said the flooding was likely caused by stormwater runoff downstream from new development that prevented the floodwater flowing through a ditch in the mobile home park from draining as quickly as it once did.

This problem has been building for years because of current and past development policies that required less stormwater storage than some thought was prudent.

In unincorporated Polk County, any development built before 1992, during a period when Polk officials were still avoiding the responsibility of updating their growth plan and development regulations as required by state law, the standard was that development need only be designed to handle a storm that had a 33 percent chance of happening in any year.

Newer developments have to design for storms that have 4 percent chance of occurring in any year unless they are in a closed basin—a place where stormwater flows in and stays until it evaporates or percolates—the design standard is a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening, the so-called 100-year storm.

The general requirement in unincorporated Polk County and Lakeland is that land where a new development is located is not supposed to generate any more stormwater runoff after it is developed than it generated before it was developed.

Judging by the comments in the article, that isn’t exactly what’s happening.

There have been other problems caused by development downstream from Lakeland’s airport in the suburbs between Drane Field Road and State Road 60.

What is occurring, from what engineers say, is that the increased development has caused both the volume and velocity of the stormwater runoff to increase, sometimes causing scouring of canals and stream channels, potentially affecting bridges and occasionally causing flash floods in homes. Very little of this land is particularly well-drained in its natural state.

There has been some discussion in recent years about the effects of climate change on rainfall patterns, which could shift some of the discussion away from the threats of sea level rise in coastal areas and onto the effect on the levels of freshwater bodies in inland areas.

This week’s flood could be a quirky event or a warning of what we might come to expect in a few decades. This should be part of the discussion of design standards for new development in Florida in 21st century.

Soil Manufacturing Review May Tighten

Although BS Ranch’s application for approval of an updated management plan for its soil-manufacturing plant has been delayed until the Oct. 4 Planning Commission meeting, two other changes in the county’s development regulations are up for consideration at Wednesday’s meeting.

The proposed changes would undo changes approved last year to accommodate BS Ranch by exempting it and other soil-manufacturing plants from the normal comprehensive review required for solid waste facilities.

County planners last year recommended and the County Commission approved specifically exempting soil manufacturing plants from a more thorough review despite the fact that BS Ranch began operating without final approval from county development officials or proper permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The company later received after-the-fact permits from Polk County and DEP, an action Polk officials came to regret.

That’s because of the odor problems that generated complaints from area residents and business owners, despite the position by both company reps and county planners during public hearings that this would not happen.

Since then, the County Commission has reportedly decided to take a harder line on the development approval process to try to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing BS Ranch fiasco.

The change in the development code will not affect BS Ranch because it already has been approved.

That is because it is illegal to apply changes in the rules retroactively.

The best anyone living near the plant can hope for now is that the review of its revised management plan will solve the odor problems.

One further suggestion may help in deciding how to deal with new types of development is to look more widely at how such cases are handled in parts of Florida outside the nearby counties.

If that had been done, Polk officials might have become aware of the regulations that were being considered in St. Lucie County after commissioners there imposed a temporary moratorium on soil-manufacturing plants.

That could have led to a fuller public policy discussion on what kind of regulations might be justified such as requiring financial responsibility and requiring the operations to occur indoors.

Interestingly, when I mentioned those requirements to one county planner, the immediate response was that those requirements shouldn’t be considered because they might put a hardship on the applicant.

That reflects an attitude that caused the problem in the first place.

It will be to the County Commission to change that.



State Water Cleanup Program Turns 30

In 1987 the Florida Legislature approved the Surface Water Management and Improvement Program (SWIM for short) to begin to address the need to begin figuring out how to reverse the decline in water quality in Florida’s water bodies.

Polk County played a role in this through the efforts of then State Rep. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, who was part of a team of young legislators who worked under the guidance of veteran legislator Rep. Sid Martin, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee to bring this program in for a landing.

This was a different time in Florida environmental legislation when state officials actively supported environmental cleanups and conservation land purchases under SWIM and Preservation 2000.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District recently compiled a summary of what the SWIM program accomplished in this part of Florida.

Some figures cited included:

–Water treatment for 215,000 acres of local watersheds.

–Restored 13,000 acres of natural systems.

–Recruited 11,000 volunteers to restore natural habitats with the addition of 570,000 plants.

The Winter Haven Chain of Lakes was one of areas specifically targeted under the program.

There’s still plenty to do, based on the number of impaired water bodies listed by state officials as well as efforts to try to prevent cleaner water bodies from sliding onto the impaired waters list because it is clear after all of these years that prevention is always cheaper than restoration.

However, it is fair to point that following an initial appropriation of $30 million in the years following the programs approval, state funding has slacked off and the ongoing efforts have had to rely on local and regional funding from the water management districts and from cities and counties that levy stormwater taxes or fees.

That reinforces the need to support local funding (see previous post) since the pollution was locally generated.


Bell Dissents On Stormwater Tax To Fix Lakes

By the time the Polk County Commission gets to the point of setting next year’s tax rate, the consensus has already been reached on whether any changes are coming.

During Tuesday’s meeting, however, there was a slight dissent after Commission Chair Melony Bell announced she would not support the proposed tax rate to pay to eventually pay for projects to preserve lake quality in Polk County.

The tax rate is 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable property.

Bell cited the fact that the tax was approved to meet the requirements of federal mandates passed down to state and local officials. She also was the lone dissenter in approving the 2013 ordinance that authorized the tax.

The proposed tax rate was set over her dissent and will be formally considered during budget hearings in September.

A couple of points.

Yes, there is a federal mandate under the Clean Water Act to work to prevent pollution as much as is practical and financially and technically feasible. The law was passed by Congress in 1972, but it took nearly a quarter century of lobbying to finally persuade the County Commission to establish a stormwater utility, which they did in 2013 after rejecting the idea as recently as 2012.

The federal mandate issue cuts both ways, however. I expect some local officials realize the need to fund lake cleanups and let the feds be the bad guys who are forcing them to do this to provide themselves with the political cover to do the right thing.

Unincorporated Polk County was tardy in approving some kind of stormwater utility. Lakeland and Winter Haven, two cities that grew up around lakes, approved stormwater fees decades ago.

In fact, Lakeland just approved an increase in its fee this year to keep up with the expense of performing lake management work.

That’s because other jurisdictions realized that their lakes were declining and they had to do something before it was too late to preserve their communities’ quality of life.

This is not about the feds, but about the future.

How Much Water Could Local Irrigation Codes Save?

Officials in Alachua County recently put a number to water conservation from a new irrigation enacted in 2015, the Gainesville Sun reports.

The figure was 9 million gallons in the past year.

That was accomplished by tightening irrigation design standards for new development.

In addition to regulations on the total acreage where high-volume (as opposed to micro) irrigation is required, the code also requires certification of irrigation contractors to make sure only qualified people are installing the systems, sets standards that avoid irrigation systems that irrigate sidewalks, driveways, streets and building walls and reinforce the requirement that all irrigation systems be equipped with a functioning rain sensor.

This goes farther than the Polk County landscaping ordinance, which is primarily devoted to landscape buffers and the choices of landscape plants. However, the Polk development code specifies micro or low-volume irrigation should be installed for at least half of the landscape and all of the non-turf landscape.

It is generally acknowledged that turf irrigation creates most of the residential irrigation demand and the potential for surface water pollution from runoff of fertilizer and other chemicals.

As local elected officials pursue future water supply planning, it might be interesting to take a look at current irrigation standards for new development and for significant redevelopment projects to see if there are some potential savings to be had.

Saving 9 million gallons of water a year may not seem like much—Polk County residents and businesses use around 300 million gallons a day—but you never know what kinds of savings we can achieve until we put a pencil to it.

It would be an interesting exercise in water planning.


Residential automatic irrigation systems shouldn’t be operating often in the summer in peninsular Florida where rainstorms drift inland from the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico regularly.


Expect More Relevant Pollution Notifications Under New Law

Now that the Florida Legislature has approved and Gov. Rick Scott has signed legislation updating how the public is informed about pollution incidents, the implementation is coming.

What incidents are reported will depend on what contaminant is involved and in some cases whether a water body is threatened.

Pollution incidents and other events, such as road blockages, train wrecks and school lockdowns, are reported to the State Watch Office.

If you want to subscribe to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s notification system, go to this link. This link will also take you to notices that are published under the new law.

As you may recall, this law was prompted by massive sewer spills in St. Petersburg that local officials initially tried to cover up and by a sinkhole in one of the gypsum stacks at Mosaic’s New Wales plant south of Mulberry.

Although Mosaic officials promptly reported what its consultant to opaquely described as “an anomaly likely connected to the Floridan aquifer system,” to state and local officials, the public was left in the dark..

When word finally surfaced to the public that there was a sinkhole, it caused a firestorm of criticism from residents in the area who were concerned about private drinking water well contamination. As it turned out, Mosaic kept the contamination on its own property by cranking up its pumps and recirculating the contaminated water that flowed into the sinkhole.

Mosaic had taken the same approach following a much larger sinkhole several years earlier.

No drinking water wells were contaminated as a result of either incident.

However the lack of transparency in the reporting process created political pressure to do a better job of letting the public know when these kinds of incidents occur.

The St. Pete sewer spills have been a recurring issue in the current mayor’s race, too.