Vulcan mining company seeks rezoning of Florida land it has worked to reclaim

Read the rezoning application that Vulcan Materials Co. has filed with Hernando County, and you get the impression its newly restored parcel of old mining land is a real oasis, that it's truly been reclaimed.

The application says the sheer walls of the pit have been molded into gentle slopes seeded with a variety of grasses. Pickerel weed and other wetland species have been planted in low areas; nesting boxes installed for ducks and eastern bluebirds.

"The property is now in shape to return to its previous rural state," the rezoning request states.

The first step to make that rural designation official for this 130-acre tract north of Brooksville will come next week when the county's Planning and Zoning Commission considers Vulcan's request.

This is a first in Hernando, at least in the memory of veteran land planners interviewed last week: a mine contending that land thoroughly stripped of life — every blade of grass, every grain of topsoil — has been turned back into productive agricultural land.

Having previously seen a few sad excuses for reclaimed mining pits — land destined to become a subdivision, not a farm — I realize I tend to judge more strictly than the average county inspector.

One of them I accompanied a few years ago gave a tract of dying seedlings planted in sterile rubble a grade of "B-plus." I thought a "D" would have been more than generous.

With that standard in mind, here's my impression of the Vulcan property.

The slopes were indeed gentle and covered with enough vegetation that on a tour Friday we saw swallow-tailed kites, egrets, ducks and a hawk perched menacingly on a bluebird box.

Due to the long drought, grass was sparse in places. For the same reason, it had to compete with a robust growth of dog fennel and other drought-tolerant weeds.

Give it time, said Lori Sanville, the Vulcan environmental manager who led me and Tampa Bay Times photographer Maurice Rivenbark on the tour. Good rains will drown the weeds, especially in the low, wet areas, and encourage the growth of grass and wetland species.

In a year or so, Sanville said, the company will decide how the land will be used — maybe as a cow pasture or tree farm.

All things considered, I'd give it a solid "C" with the possibility that good management might bring this grade up a notch.

Stay focused on this one patch of green and you could even feel reasonably optimistic about the prospects of reclamation.

But not if you look around a bit.

On the way to the restored pit, Sanville drove past piles of rock and sand, rusted conveyor belts idled by the stagnant construction market, and mining pits commonly described as "moonscapes," though certainly "wasteland" works, too.

That landscape, unfortunately, is far more representative of the county's thousands of acres of rock mines and will be for a good long while.

All but a small percentage of this property was designated for mining before the 1993 update of the county mining law, meaning it is not subject to reclamation requirements.

Not only that. In agreements with the county and the man who originally leased this property to Vulcan, Frank Buczak, the company agreed to take extra care.

All the topsoil had to be set aside for future use. Mining was to be done incrementally, with reclamation starting on each section as soon as the bulldozers had done their work. And, unlike the other bare-bones reclamation job I saw a few years ago, the restoration on this land was to be thorough enough to allow farming.

In other words, it was supposed to be a model.

Buczak long ago decided it wasn't.

He filed a lawsuit in 2008, saying that the company violated several terms of its lease by, among other actions, digging too deep and consuming land that was supposed to be left as a buffer.

As part of the settlement, in 2010, Vulcan bought 100 acres of this land for about $1.1 million, according to county records.

Vulcan's agreement with the county wasn't quite as strict, and, according to county planners, the company has met all of its terms.

Even so, this land will long remain an oasis in a bad way — an island of green surrounded by barren land. And the promise it represents — that our mines will be restored to a lush, productive state — is mostly a mirage.

Vulcan mining company seeks rezoning of Florida land it has worked to reclaim 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 1:44pm]

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