ZEPHYRHILLS — Charlie Proctor was the first City Council member to speak up after a presentation on efforts to seek brownfield status for some 7,500 acres in and around the city.
"You look up at the sign and we're the City of Pure Water," he said at the council meeting Monday evening, pointing at the city's logo hanging on the wall behind him, "and I wouldn't want to put a blemish on it."
A handful of residents burst into applause.
Proctor's comment reflected the concern in communities across Pasco County, where officials are exploring brownfield status for the greenbacks it could bring. A government program provides financial incentives to redevelop commercial or industrial properties that are contaminated or suffer from the perception of being contaminated. But some worry the brownfield label brings a damaging stigma.
Earlier this year, the county received a $1 million federal grant to identify areas that might qualify for brownfield status. Senior county planner Melanie Kendrick has been making her way around the county, explaining the benefits of the program to residents and local government officials alike. Monday night was her chance to bend the ears of Zephyrhills City Council members. Last week, during a public meeting at the city's World War II Barracks Museum, Kendrick said the benefit is simple: money.
"Everything's about money," she told the half-dozen area residents who showed up for the Oct. 17 gathering. "I'm not going to lie. I'm here to raise property values, and I'm here to create jobs for my residents."
Properties designated as a brownfield site can bring $2,500 bonus refunds to companies for every job created. Developers in these areas could enjoy sales tax credits on building materials purchased for the construction of an affordable housing project or a mixed-used affordable housing area. The designation can provide state loan guarantees for primary lenders of up to 75 percent on all sites. If contaminants are actually found on the property, owners could be eligible for cleanup tax credits of up to 50 percent of the cost of the cleanup.
In turn, proponents say, the designation boosts the local economy with newly created jobs, and eventually grows the tax base. The flagship example of a successful brownfield project is Ybor City's Ikea, built on a 29-acre longtime cannery site that was cleaned up and redeveloped into the 353,000-square-foot mega retailer and restaurant known for its inexpensive furniture and Swedish meatballs. It brought 500 construction and 400 in-store jobs to Tampa.
The latest push for such a designation locally, known as the Zephyrhills Airport Industrial Area, follows the U.S. 301 corridor, starting south of the city around Jerry Road and Paul S. Buchman Highway, continuing north to include the city's airport and tapering northeast near Old Lakeland Highway and just south of U.S. 98, where two CSX railroads converge.
With its proximity to the Port of Tampa and its rail access, Kendrick said, this area has the potential to create an "inland port" for improving freight mobility.
"It's really a good competitive position," she told council members Monday.
The impact on property values
Kendrick has said she has found no evidence of land values dropping simply because of a brownfield designation.
The most vocal residents don't buy it.
Brothers Zach and Daniel Arnold, who live just outside city limits on adjoining 2.5-acre parcels on Leaf Lane, worry about how their family's 100-year-old homestead would be affected by a brownfield label.
When Zach Arnold heard about the initiative, he outfitted his teal Ford pickup with a sign and included his phone number:
"Stop Brownfield Project if you value your land. Land Value will Drop," it reads on one side.
Arnold, who says he's collecting signatures from people opposed to the designation, told council members he sees the effort as nothing more than a "land grab by the government."
"The people are tired of the government greed. We're tired of the government coming in for their benefit and not the residents' benefit," he told council members after Kendrick's presentation.
He worries the government is just trying to get property on the cheap or eventually by eminent domain. City and county officials say that's not so.
The program is voluntary, meaning those who own property in the designated area can say they don't want to be included. But critics say any property near the brownfield will still be tainted by the stigma of such a designation.
When the brownfield proposal came before Zephyrhills' planning commission, member Michael Payne cast the only vote against the designation.
He said the original intent of the program was not to turn greenfields into brownfields. Much of the land in the proposed Zephyrhills area is pasture land. Kendrick said those farming operations may have used cow-dipping vats of an arsenic solution decades ago to protect the herds from ticks. Still, Kendrick has maintained she doesn't expect to find many, if any, contaminated properties in the area.
"Why would you even consider putting that (greenfields) in the toilet?" a contentious Payne asked the council. "That's exactly what you'd be doing."
Payne is so upset about the brownfield stigma and what he believes is a lack of information being shared about the project before officials are voting, that he announced Monday he is resigning from the planning commission. He called it a "rubber stamp" operation — a notion that was disputed by City Council president Jodi Wilkeson, a former planning commission member, and Mayor Cliff McDuffie, who currently sits on the commission.
Officials have decided to delay both city and county votes on the Zephyrhills area until more public meetings on brownfields can be held. The next is set for Nov. 7 in Zephyrhills, at a time and location to be determined.
The council had mixed reactions Monday evening. Council members Lance Smith and Kent Compton said they were leaning toward the idea because of the economic incentives, adding that they were looking to what New Port Richey did. Last week, New Port Richey voted on a first reading in favor of designating most of the city a brownfield, but it is calling it an economic incentive area — something Smith and Compton said they liked.
"I'm on the fence about it," Wilkeson said. She said she worries that it might affect property values but that she can also see the good in it.
Council member Ken Burgess said he has some concerns, too.
Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of development and planning, said that after hearing more comments Monday night, he probably will remove the residential areas from the project. He is also making it a priority find out whether property values have dropped in brownfield areas in similar, rural Florida communities.
"We fully want to look at and assess the ramifications of the designation as a brownfield," Vande Berg told the Times on Tuesday. "That's certainly not our intent, to devalue any properties in Zephyrhills."
Other Zephyrhills City Council news
• The council voted unanimously on a first reading to change the zoning of the property that once housed the Cloud 9 Hookah Lounge. If it receives final approval, the change from community commercial to traditional mixed use would pave the way for a church to move in.
• The council approved joint agreements with the state Department of Transportation to replace the fuel farm pad at the airport, as well as to install lighted wind cones, taxi signs and upgrades to a segmented circle. Grants fund the majority of the projects.
• The council granted new City Manager Jim Drumm a six-month extension to the requirement that he move into a home within the city limits. Drumm said he has a contract to buy a house just outside the city limits and plans to annex the property into the city. He said other neighbors have expressed interest in doing the same, so he will work on moving forward with that.