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Hernando Commission grants first approval on lime rock mine expansion

By Barbara Behrendt
A backhoe digs deep into soft limerock at Cemex's Brooksville location. The company has asked to expand its operation. Times file


Like a half dozen public meetings before it, a room full of people with mining interests and their consultants faced off Tuesday against residents and representatives of environmental organizations over the proposed expansion of a lime rock mine east of Brooksville.

This time, Cemex Construction Materials Florida walked away with an approval by the Hernando County Commission on the first of several steps needed to facilitate the controversial expansion.

The commission agreed to change the county comprehensive plan designation on 730 acres, north of State Road 50 and across from Bayfront Hospital, from residential and commercial to mining and commercial. The matter now goes to the state for review.

Tuesday’s debate lasted more than four hours, ending in a unanimous vote and a message to opponents from County Commission Chairman Steve Champion.

Opponents repeatedly said they represent thousands of people who don’t want the mine to expand, Champion said, but that is not how the majority of people in Hernando County feel.

"I just want to remind people that this is a minority in the county. This county is 180,000-something people, and based on the voting record, 71 percent voted for pro-business candidates that are for economic growth,’’ Champion said. "Their number one concern is economy and jobs.’’

Cemex representatives cited property tax contributions, salaries for Cemex workers and their impact on the local economy as ways the company contributes to Hernando County.

Champion praised Cemex supporters.

"Everything else brought up here was emotion," he said. "There was very little data.’’

The county’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which Champion has said he wants to disband, voted twice to recommend denial of the expansion.

Bob Widmar, a former member of the planning commission, said the area under consideration is an ideal place for residential development.

That won’t be true after mining, he said, suggesting a new billboard for the county: "Visit the holiest place in Florida.’’ Cemex plans to mine rock on the hilly property to possibly within eight feet of the water table.

Opponents warned of health threats, a decline in area property values, wildlife habitat destruction and damage to the county’s tourism push. They said the expansion could pollute nearby residential water wells and would destroy the beauty of the tree canopy on Fort Dade Avenue.

They quoted resolutions by doctors, drainage studies and reports of environmental and blasting violations by Cemex. They also hinted at the company’s influence over the commission.

Election records show that Cemex has made campaign contributions to each of the sitting county commissioners over the past five years, including $1,250 to Nick Nicholson, $1,000 to Champion, $1,000 to John Allocco, $300 to Jeff Holcomb, and $250 to Wayne Dukes. The county Republican Executive Committee, led by Allocco, has collected $28,725 from Cemex during that same period.

Jane West, an attorney for Nature Coast Conservation, argued that mining expansion violated key provisions of the county’s comprehensive plan by its incompatibility with the surrounding residential community, its failure to protect natural and historical resources, and its impact on the habitat of protected species.

Exploiting resources "for a Mexican mining conglomerate does not make America great again,’’ West said.

Cemex representative Darryl Johnston accused the opposition of spreading misinformation. Mining supporters, including James Morris of Cemex and experts on topics ranging from blasting to toxicology, pitched the benefits of the expansion.

The 20-year mining lease would provide needed building materials in the form of lime rock and extend the life of mining jobs, they said. After the lease, they said, the land could be used for a residential community.

Property values would not be affected, the operation wouldn’t hurt tourism and the company has not violated any rules, they said.

Powers Dorsett, a part of the ownership group, told commissioners his family has deep roots in the community.

Making sure the property will be available for residential and commercial development after the mining was a key negotiating point when Cemex first approached him several years ago.

The commission’s vote sends the mining plan to the state for review.

If approved, the matter returns for local hearings on comprehensive plan changes and rezoning before a final permission to expand the mine.

This is the third time in recent years the land ownership group and Cemex have proposed the expansion. Their first try in 2011 ended after strong opposition from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The second time, in 2014, it was again rejected by the Planning and Zoning Commission. After further study, it went before the County Commission, but was pulled before a vote because of a lack of support.

>>>Previous coverage:> Deny Brooksville mine expansion, planning commissioners say>>

>>>Previous coverage:> Residents express skepticism over proposed expansion of mining near Brooksville>>

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.