Commissioners send CEMEX comp plan amendment to state agencies

The Board of County Commissioners heard a lengthy series of CEMEX expert witnesses in support of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment from a Residential and Regional Commercial Overlay to Mining and Commercial on a 730 acre tract of land across the street from Bayfront Hospital on Cortez Blvd in Brooksville. More specifically, a 573 acre portion of land is proposed for mining designation and a 156 acre tract along Cortez is proposed for commercial designation.

Along with expert testimony, there were letters from Bayfront Health CEO Kenneth Wicker and Gina Hall, President of the management group for the Historic Spring Hill cemetery, Spring Hill African American Cemetery Trust, Inc. In a nutshell both letters state that the vibrations would not be problematic for their operations and they will not be negatively affected if they are notified of upcoming blasts, which CEMEX has agreed to. Following the applicant’s expert testimony, the Board heard rebuttal from attorney Jane West on behalf of the Nature Coast Conservation group. Following her presentation was citizen comment, in which many citizens expressed their disapproval of the comp plan amendment, while some spoke in favor of it. Commissioners decided to transmit the application to the state in a 5-0 vote to approve with 9 conditions set by staff.
CEMEX is essentially back to where they were in December of 2014, but perhaps they are in a better position since the board is in general more favorable to the project. Now the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will evaluate the Comprehensive Plan Amendment along with other state agencies such as Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Florida Department of Transportation. The last time around, the state agencies did not turn up any major issues and the project returned to the commission where it rested on them for final approval under a certain time limit. Ultimately CEMEX withdrew their application because they lacked a supermajority on the commission for approval. The current commission has removed the supermajority requirement for comprehensive plan amendments and with a unanimous vote to transmit the application to the state, the applicant is sitting pretty.

The current plan

Mark Stephens of the Colinas Group, a licensed professional geologist and engineer with 40 plus years of experience, presented information in regards to likelihood of well water and groundwater depletion due to the mining activities. He explained that mining will be done at least 8 feet above groundwater level using track excavators. He pointed out that there is no dewatering in the operation. After mining, 8 feet of soil will be placed on mine floor. His presentation stated, “Rock has been excavated for nearly 100 years at the Brooksville Mine. Groundwater has been monitored for several decades. The data show the excavation activities will not impact groundwater levels or quality.”

Jeffrey Straw Vice President Area Manager of GeoSonics spoke about the explosives which will be used to blast at the site. His expertise he said is in ground vibration measurement instrumentation analysis and he has been in the field for forty years. Referring to blasting, he stated, “It’s necessary because of the nature of the rock,” specifying rock hardness. He said that it isn’t everywhere on the site but it will need to be broken. The controlled commercial explosives are placed into existing cracks for excavations. He remarked that in 2005-2006CEMEX began using mechanical excavators to reduce blasting. He said that the blast detonates in a millisecond. New permitting will be required to blast and seismographs will be placed by an independent firm throughout the site to monitor and will send the data to the state fire marshal and the property owner.

Lee Walton with Flatwoods Consulting Group reviewed the endangered or threatened wildlife species found on the property which included a little blue heron and 54 gopher tortoise burrows. In his presentation, he stated, “Prior to mining, CEMEX will obtain a Conservation Permit from the FWC and relocate gopher tortoises out of harm's way.” In regards to the little blue heron, “The Bronson Extension lacks suitable nesting habitat and does not support a viable population of little blue herons. Little blue heron will not be impacted by the proposed quarry and no permits are required by the FWC. ”

Steve Schriever with Fishkind & Associates Inc. spoke on the economic impact of CEMEX on Hernando County and gave the following statistics:
Fiscal & Economic Benefits of CEMEX to Hernando County

• $38.0 million total fiscal benefit to Hernando County over 20 years.

• $38.6 million in property tax payments to the Hernando County BOCC over the next 20 years. • $34.0 million in property taxes for schools over the next 20-years.

• CEMEX's direct economic output for Hernando County: - $55.6 million per year with wages of $11.3 million from 290 jobs.

• CEMEX's total economic output for Hernando County: - $69.2 million per year with wages of $14.6 million from 397 jobs.

Dr. Christopher Teaf a toxicologist with the University of Florida explained that two categories of small airborne particles have been studied (PM2.5 and PM10) at the three locations surrounding the quarry for the past 17 years. He explained the PM2.5 has always been at health based levels. He also stated that silica and asbestos do not pose health risks for this project.

Attorney Jane West on behalf of Nature Coast Conservation argued that the property provides an extremely valuable residential overlay that will be needed sooner than after the 20 year mining project is complete.

“Twenty years, that’s an entire generation of where this land will not be able to be touched by a single young family that wants to move to this area and be right in the heart of it. This is going to be off the books,” she said.

West presented an affidavit letter from Noah Kugler, a licensed professional geologist of H2O GeoSolutions LLC stating that a decline in water levels in the mine area could lower levels in nearby wells and water quality south of the mine is likely to be impacted.

Commissioner Allocco pointed out that the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) would have the ability to stop progress on this project if they felt it jeopardized water quality or quantity. Chairman Champion criticized the expert’s affidavit as unprofessional and stated that the applicant’s expert has 40 years of experience while Kugler only has what appears to be 10 years.

Attorney West stated that reclamation plans are required by county ordinance 78-6 along with surety bonds. “We don’t have any evidence of surety bond being posted,” she remarked.

Holcomb said that the county doesn’t own the land, a group of citizens owns it. “We don’t get to tell them you should do this or you should do that. It’s their land.”

To this West replied, “That is exactly what you’re supposed to do as a government official. Your responsibility as uncomfortable as it may be is to plan for the future orderly growth of your county. And that was done very intelligently when there was a residential overlay put on this parcel. Let them do whatever they want to do within the confines of the FLUM designation and the zoning that exists on the parcel today.”

In regards to the Private Property Rights Bert J. Harris Act, she stated, “I see with dismay commissioners being forced to vote out of fear of litigation for a property rights taking.” She explained that the Harris Act only would award money for a regulation that “unfairly affects real property.” She said if the county was forcing the applicant to give up the residential entitlements and go back to mining then that may pose a risk for a Bert Harris claim.

“From a land use perspective, it is strong enough to constitute a determination that there is not competent and substantial evidence to show compatibility with surrounding land uses. And on that basis alone you can deny this transmittal,” stated Attorney West.

Chairman Champion was impressed with the experience and thoroughness of the applicant’s experts and felt that many of the arguments against the project did not contain enough data and was based on emotion. “I know from personal experience that they (CEMEX) are good stewards of the county. They are good neighbors. They do provide great jobs. ”

Commissioners approved the transmittal to the state 5-0, with 9 criteria to be considered as part of the comprehensive plan summarized as follows:
Blasting techniques to minimize impacts
Good Neighbor Policy to address potential damage as a result of mining activities
Provide a right of way to county for a California Street to Citrus Way corridor
When mining ends, provide transportation corridor from Fort Dade Ave to SR 50.
Minimum of 200 foot setback and buffer between mining property line and historic cemetery
Minimum 400 foot setback to nearest mining area adjacent to SR 50.
Protection of the Fort Dade tree canopy
Conservation easement to compensate for loss of viable wildlife habitat
The mining reclamation plan shall be designed in a manner that allows for the long-term end use and redevelopment of the property as a viable mixed-use community.