SHADY HILLS — Bill Roth drove through his Shady Acres neighborhood, extolling the virtues of the peaceful rural community off U.S. 41 where horses and cattle roam amid the homes on 5 acres or more.
He lamented the drop in the water level of what used to be lakes in the region, blaming increased pumping as a culprit. Yet he found hope in Pasco County's purchase of nearby land for its environmental conservation efforts.
The critical next step, Roth said, is to stop a proposal for a limerock mine just north of Shady Acres, a middle-class subdivision with houses ranging in size from 1,500 to more than 4,000 square feet.
"We want a greenbelt," he explained, "not a limerock mining belt."
Almost one year ago, county commissioners rejected Outlaw Ridge Inc.'s request to expand its Lago Verde sand mining operation. It wanted to blast for limerock at the location 3 miles south of County Line Road on the west side of U.S. 41.
The developer did not go away quietly, though.
Instead, it claimed the commission's denial decreased its property value, and sought relief through mediation. Months of talks later, attorneys for the county, Outlaw Ridge and some homeowners came up with a deal that goes to the commission on May 7. (It had been scheduled for April 10, but the county ran into problems with its public hearing advertisement.)
The proposed settlement includes the creation of a $510,000 escrow account to pay for any damages from mining, or if there are none, to cover neighborhood improvements. It limits blasting to three times monthly, setting time constraints on excavation, crushing and related activities. It gives the developer one 15-year permit with no extensions, and specifies that after mining ends, the site must be a park, open space or residential housing.
"We have addressed the objections of two of the individuals that live closest to it," said David Smolker, an attorney for Outlaw Ridge. "We've bent over backward to provide measures to mitigate any impacts that occur. We agreed to restrictions more restrictive than those placed on similar limerock mines. . . . I'm not sure what else you could do, short of not having limerock mining at all, to satisfy the homeowners association."
County attorneys are recommending approval, noting the alternative could be expensive.
"The Board of County Commissioners is not required to accept the proposed settlement," assistant county attorney David Goldstein said via email. "If the Board rejects the proposed settlement, Outlaw Ridge has made it clear that they intend to sue the County for damages and withdraw any of the concessions that were made in the proposed settlement."
Smolker said the group's claim exceeds $10 million.
"Not that we are trying to publicly threaten the county. We're not," he said. "I'm just stating a fact."
Roth and others in the Shady Acres homeowners association don't want the county to give in to what they consider bullying threats. The county, they argued, should not approve the mine simply to avoid potentially costly litigation.
"We just hope our commissioners still have enough courage to stand up against the mine," said Susan Hoffacker, an association director.
Hoffacker expressed a concern that if limerock mining is allowed at the Lago Verde site, two other adjacent properties of hundreds of acres could become the next target to expand the mine. She also worried about the potential for sinkholes, and air, water and noise pollution, if the blasting is allowed.
Smolker called those objections the "standard parade of horribles" that neighbors bring forward for LULU (locally unpopular land use) proposals. Goldstein, meanwhile, suggested that there's nothing incongruous about having mining and county-protected environmental lands in close proximity.
"Even if they are incompatible adjacent uses, County staff views the mining operation as a limited duration use in the area," he wrote. "The permanent use for the property is required to be park, open space or residential. These permanent uses are clearly compatible with the nearby conservation lands."
The homeowners association has already spent $70,000 to fight the blasting, money originally slated to pay for road improvements.
Two of the neighborhood's homeowners closest to the mine have abandoned the battle as part of the mediation discussions, in which Outlaw Ridge agreed to acquire their properties.
"I believe what is on the table is the best option that is available," said Kim Vowell, whose land abuts the mine property.
She noted that the developer could petition for a larger mine, and seek to blast more and to operate longer hours. Its offer is a workable compromise that doesn't put the county in a financial hole, Vowell said.
She criticized the homeowners association as intransigent, and said some board members played both sides by having a lawyer participate in settlement talks while publicly criticizing the project.
Roth denied the accusation, saying the association was kicked out of mediation after rejecting a buyout offer, and called Vowell a traitor and a sellout for abandoning the anti-mine cause.
They both acknowledged that whatever the outcome of the mine, the neighborhood is unlikely to be the same.
"The tensions have been very, very high. It's just not going to heal," Vowell said. "I've put a gate on my front, I've put an alarm on my house, because I don't trust my neighbors."
Roth said he would help Vowell's horse if it gets out. But "a lot of other folks will not be as understanding as I am. They will hold it against her. And that's unfortunate."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek on Twitter.