When he first laid eyes on the property in 1997, it was a towering hill of sand, billed as the tallest naturally occurring dune in Hillsborough County.
Reggie Joyner, then a hotshot lawyer from North Carolina with investments in nearby Riverview, remembers driving up in a friend's Mercedes-Benz and burying the front tires in sugar sand. He had heard something about the Southeast County Landfill needing dirt.
He bought the 17-acre piece. Almost 14 years, multiple land purchases and tons of scooped-up soil later, the dune has turned into a huge hole in the ground, 40 feet deep and brimming with water. Joyner dumped in $900 worth of minnows a few years back, and recently a kid caught a 10-pound bass where there used to be nothing but dirt.
The property, dubbed Shelley Lakes Mine, has grown to 242 acres, of which 185 hold water — a big lake flanked by two ponds.
And it's for sale. Price tag: $3 million.
Joyner, 66, who traded a high-profile bank attorney job for a business selling dirt, stands at the site where it all began and shakes his head.
"I never in 100,000 years would have thought I would be in the dirt business," he says.
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Joyner steers his red pickup truck down Shelley Lane, the dirt-and-concrete road for which the sand mine was named, and stops briefly at a wood-frame booth with a window.
"How many tickets?" he asks the employee inside.
"Have they quit?"
Time was when dump trucks lined Shelley Lane from daybreak to dusk, dozens at a time, hundreds by the end of the day, all waiting for dirt — dirt that lined the county landfill, mounds that went into roadbeds and parking lots, earth that shored up the foundations of countless homesites. The dirt was doled out by an excavator, typically three big scoops per truck, in about one minute, 15 seconds.
"That's when I had two ticket booths and a person walking up and down the lane with a book of tickets," Joyner recalls. Truck drivers took tickets showing how much they received and the price.
Joyner's dirt has settled at Tampa International Airport and provided the underpinning for the widening of Interstate 275 from downtown to Himes Avenue.
"I put 1 million (cubic) yards in Panther Trace," Joyner says, referring to the sprawling housing community in Riverview. "I loaded 142,000 trucks in 2006."
By 2008, the stream of trucks pouring into Shelley Lakes Mine was less than half the 2006 peak. With the housing bust of 2007 and the recession that followed, the luster of dirt dealing has dimmed.
Although he declined to give specific numbers, Joyner said he made more money than he ever dreamed he would in 2006. He said he has lost money since then, mostly because he bought land in 2006, just before the housing bust that lowered real estate values and squeezed the demand for dirt needed in home construction.
Business picked up late in 2011, so much so that Shelley Lakes opened for business the week after Christmas for the first time in years, Joyner said. He still expects last year to be his worst ever.
From the start, digging has been a messy business, Joyner says, tangled in red tape.
"It's extremely hard to get a permit," he says. "It takes over a year and $100,000 and a lot of sleepless nights."
He had to get an operating permit, an environmental resource permit and a water use permit. There were public hearings where people opposed the business. Joyner's pit prevailed.
Joyner says he has tried to be a good neighbor. In the pit's heyday, he received two citations for dirt spilled by trucks in the public road, both of which were corrected promptly and incurred no fines, according to Mike Stevenson, who oversees land excavation operating permits for Hillsborough County.
In 2004 and 2005, he received warning notices from Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission for encroaching on wetlands. The problems were corrected before he was cited for environmental violations, said Bob Owens, a supervisor in the EPC wetlands division.
Stevenson says Joyner has responded quickly to all complaints.
"Reggie really tries to tend to his neighbors," Stevenson says. "He's one of our better operators in the county."
Marcella O'Steen, vice president and former longtime president of the Balm Civic Association, says the big lake has dried up neighboring wells, and the truck traffic and dust were detrimental to the community.
"We have survived all that, and we're now hoping it's over," she says. "If we can be left with a lake and appropriate types of rural uses around it, that will be the payoff."
Joyner says the lake has not dried up wells that were properly drilled. Regulators at the Southwest Florida Water Management District reported no violations of Shelley Lakes' environmental resource and water use permits.
O'Steen says her biggest concern with the potential sale of the Shelley Lakes property is that reclamation requirements, including planting appropriate vegetation around the lake, be fulfilled when the digging is over.
Joyner says he posted a $148,000 bond, required by the county, to ensure the work. Stevenson and a representative of the water management district, which issued the environmental resource permit, say any future owners will be bound by existing reclamation requirements.
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Though he has just come out of a difficult year, Joyner says he's not ready to give up what has become a booming Florida business. According to his estimates, looking at projects in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, there's a need for about 9 million cubic yards of dirt, and there's not that much left in established sand mines.
He figures there's 2 million cubic yards of dirt left at Shelley Lakes. He wants to sell the whole thing, whether to another sand mine operator, a land developer or maybe for a public park.
He says he has his eye on another parcel with pit potential. He won't say where, except it's not in Balm.
"The service I provide is necessary," Joyner says. "I love this business, but it's hard. It's dirty and it's hot."
Joyner likes to stand on the lake's edge sometimes and watch cormorants, ducks and eagles fishing there. Sometimes he marvels at the big bowl of water that opened up through years of digging.
"I just can't believe I did it."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.