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Controversial borrow pit in Keystone wants to bring in peat

KEYSTONE — The latest dispute over a controversial borrow pit on Lutz-Lake Fern Road is not only about dump trucks hauling dirt out.

It's also about what trucks might haul in.

Property owner Stephen Dibbs is seeking permission from a Hillsborough County land use hearing officer to bring peat — partly decayed plant matter dug up from wetlands — to his 320 acres.

The peat could come from two construction projects in Pinellas County where Dibbs hopes to haul dirt, according to his application. As envisioned, it would decompose into topsoil and mulch, which would be useful in reclaiming land disturbed by the dirt-hauling operation.

"It really doesn't pose much of an impact whatsoever is my understanding," said Steve Allison, a consultant representing Dibbs.

Allison, however, could not say how much peat might be brought to Dibbs' property. Dibbs did not return calls seeking comment.

Property owners with the same kind of agricultural zoning as Dibbs can bring the material in after simply getting a natural resource permit, similar to a building permit, Allison said.

In Dibbs' case, he is prohibited from doing so by conditions the county attached to the approval for the borrow pit.

Neighbors in both Hillsborough and Pasco counties are leery of the idea.

"It took 38 conditions to get this thing approved," said Barbara Dowling, who heads the land use committee for the Keystone Civic Association. "I still think it's not an appropriate spot for a borrow pit to begin with, but they got it, and I think they need all 38 conditions to keep it."

At Ivy Lake Estates, which is in Pasco County immediately north of Dibbs' property, resident Gary Anderson said in an e-mail that he wonders how anyone would really know what would be in a given truckload of material.

That's not his only question. Will it contain any toxins that could affect groundwater and residents' wells? he asks. Will it smell? And who will be the dirt police?

Dibbs' request likewise has drawn the objection of county land excavation officials.

They say it would not only violate the operating conditions for his borrow pit, but it would be inconsistent with the county's land development code. That code bans owners of excavation sites from bringing any outside substances, including vegetative materials, onto their properties.

The proposed change had been scheduled for a May 17 public hearing at the County Center, though the hearing is expected to be postponed to a later date.

A desire to go west

Dibbs also is asking to change several other conditions, including one that has been decided more than once.

In February 2008, after two years of controversy, Dibbs received county permission to excavate up to 2.5 million cubic yards of dirt from his land, which is just west of the Suncoast Parkway.

But that approval came with the 38 conditions to protect Keystone and its roads.

One of them requires trucks from Dibbs' site to use the Suncoast Parkway, which is just a few hundred yards east, to haul dirt to construction projects in other parts of Hillsborough County and beyond. Hauling dirt west of the borrow pit on Lutz-Lake Fern Road is specifically banned.

But Dibbs is again asking for trucks from his site to be able to go west on Lutz-Lake Fern Road to Gunn Highway.

In January 2009, almost a year after the project's original approval, a county hearing officer denied that request. Land use hearing officer Steven Luce concluded that Lutz-Lake Fern Road was not built to handle heavy trucks. Additionally, he said Dibbs' proposal would put more dump trucks on roads the county has not approved as truck through-routes and "would adversely impact the rural residential community through which the truck traffic would travel."

But the proposed change makes economic sense, Dibbs contends, and would save taxpayers money.

Dibbs' application says the site is the closest supply of dirt for three big projects: a mixed-use development and road project in Tarpon Springs, the widening of Gunn Highway in Pasco County, and the widening of Keystone Road in northern Pinellas County.

Allison said each project "will be funded by taxpayer revenues" so the cost of hauling the dirt should be kept at a minimum. That, he and Dibbs contend, would mean allowing trucks from the borrow pit to head west on Lutz-Lake Fern Road to Gunn Highway and Pinellas.

Complying with the existing conditions would more than triple the mileage to the trips, Allison said.

"I think the way the condition is written is counter to the public interest," he said.

But the Keystone Civic Association opposes the change. The ban on westbound truck traffic was put in place to keep heavy dump trucks from tearing up the road, the association says.

"Going west on Lutz-Lake Fern Road is absolutely out of the question," Dowling said. "Nothing has changed on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. It's still the same road that it was."

fast facts

Some of the proposed changes

• Allow the borrow pit to operate an extra two years, until 2020.

• Allow dump trucks hauling dirt out of the site to drive on Lutz-Lake Fern Road to Gunn Highway.

• Allow peat dug up from wetlands at construction sites to be hauled to the property.

• Eliminate a requirement that Dibbs hire an off-duty deputy to direct traffic at the entrance to his property during rush hour.

Controversial borrow pit in Keystone wants to bring in peat 05/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 3:20pm]

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