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Brooksville residents' fight against a landfill in their neighborhood could prove futile

Paige Cool and Alison Walter are putting up a great fight against a landfill planned for their rural neighborhood east of Brooksville. The letter of opposition they sent to the state Department of Environmental Protection is well written and footnoted like a doctoral dissertation.

More than 300 names are copied on their e-mails, which have been arriving with such inbox-jamming regularity that I'd call them spam if they weren't so informative.

For example, I learned that construction and demolition debris landfills such as the one planned for their neighborhood are not as harmless as commonly believed and can contaminate the groundwater with arsenic and other toxins.

Cool and Walter recently walked with me to the 26-acre landfill site and convinced me the project is out of place in a neighborhood of small horse farms on the southern edge of the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

But here's the problem: I doubt they'll be able to do anything about it.

The fight over this landfill brings up a lot of issues: the performance of the county attorney's office; truck traffic in an area that draws horse riders from around the state; the potential for groundwater contamination.

But, to me, it's mainly about land-use rules and their permanence. Once a county grants zoning for a piece of property, we're pretty much stuck with it.

Let's go back to 1994, when the previous owner of this land, Cal Wilson, asked the county to rezone it for use as a landfill.

The County Commission denied his request, and Wilson hired Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason to appeal in court. It wasn't resolved until 1998, when the County Commission agreed to a settlement, endorsed by then-County Attorney Bruce Snow, that would allow the landfill, with conditions.

Mason said recently a landfill that accepts only concrete blocks, lumber, drywall and other building materials is a perfect use for the former sand mine.

"This is nothing more than filling up a hole with totally inert material,'' Mason said.

The agreement was no giveaway, Snow said, because it required any company operating the landfill to pay a county "spotter'' to stop the disposal of any dangerous materials, as well as a road maintenance fee levied on each yard of debris.

Still, it granted a use that even 16 years ago the County Commission considered inappropriate. That was before this part of the county, north of State Road 50, filled up with homeowners on patches of rural land; it was before Cool's horse-boarding business and others like it began attracting riders who could access miles of trails in the state forest by crossing Wildlife Lane.

This quiet road — part paved, part lime rock — will provide primary access to the landfill. Cool said the truck traffic will kill her business.

"I'll be done,'' she said.

What makes the situation even worse, she said, is that the company that has applied to run the landfill, Croom Investments LLC of Tampa, won't have to pay the county the road fee on each of the loads or for the county spotter.

Those requirements went away in negotiations with the county last year. County Attorney Garth Coller defended this revised agreement in a Feb. 16 memo he sent to commissioners, saying the changes got the county out from under the cost of improving the access road and the liability if its employee were to allow toxic waste in the landfill.

Personally, I liked the idea of having a spotter officially employed by the county. Cool liked it even more, and said the county attorney's office had allowed the old agreement to be "gutted.''

In any case, the agreement puts the county and its land-use laws out of the picture once and for all. The neighbors' only hope is that the DEP denies the permit. And that became a lot less likely on Friday, when the department issued notice that it intended to approve it.

Paige and Cool have said they plan to appeal, which will lead to an administrative hearing that must focus only on the landfill's environmental safety.

I know from documents supplied by neighbors and from talking to Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida, that there are real concerns.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCPs), mercury and arsenic have been found to leach into the aquifer from construction landfills, such as the one near Croom, lined only with clay rather than plastic, Townsend said.

I also know, from reading the DEP report, that the agency will require safeguards against contamination. Old pressure-treated lumber that contains arsenic, for example, will not be allowed in the landfill. Neither will appliances, a primary source of mercury.

Will these restrictions be enough? We'll know more as the hearing approaches.

Meanwhile, it's fair to again point out that this land use was approved years ago. As much as I admire the energy of the landfill's neighbors, as much as I respect them for speaking up for the environment, I can't help but think about other proposed projects in the county that could do a lot more harm.

The landfill's opponents are concerned about a 26-acre former sand mine. What about the vast former rock mine where Florida Rock Industries wants to build a new city for 13,000 people?

I'm talking, of course, about the Quarry Preserve. So far, hardly any residents have stood up against that one. Pretty soon it will be too late.

Brooksville residents' fight against a landfill in their neighborhood could prove futile 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 1:28pm]
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