DADE CITY — Residents of Mickens Harper were stunned and furious when they learned the city planned to replace their neighborhood baseball fields with a 2 million gallon storage tank for reclaimed water.
City commissioners, who had approved upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, were equally surprised by that part of the plans.
After an emotional hearing Tuesday night, commissioners voted unanimously to put the project on hold until they could examine the impact and evaluate alternatives.
"When we discussed adding a tank (adjacent to the city's wastewater treatment plant), I don't think we talked about taking a ballfield. So we dropped the ball," City Commissioner Camille Hernandez said. "What we weren't doing was considering the impact to the community. In good spirit, we should take a breath and address the community needs."
The vote came after pleas from residents to save the Mickens field, a popular park in the predominantly African-American neighborhood east of the U.S. 301 corridor.
"Our kids are happy with that little patch of grass and dirt. Now we can't trust it will be there for them," resident Alga Williams said. "If you can sleep by seeing that way, you might get by, but you won't get away."
"The kids can't speak for themselves, so I will on their behalf," added Eddie Starks Jr. "I can remember when nobody spoke up for us when the plant went in back in the '50s." He and other residents talked about the smell from the existing plant, the chemical fumes, the concern of contamination to a nearby pond.
About 150 residents packed into city commission chambers Tuesday evening to oppose plans to expand the city's wastewater treatment plant. The plans include various internal upgrades, including a new sludge digester, a different disinfection system and improved effluent filters at the 15-acre site, which processes all of the city's waste.
But the plans also call for the reclaimed water tank in place of the neighborhood baseball fields. New pipelines would carry the reclaimed water north to the Dade City Business Center and the Little Everglades Ranch.
"They are irrigating their fields with quality water," said Thomas Vill, a vice president at Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., the city's consultant on the project. "We don't have power to make them conserve."
The planned upgrades have been in the works for years, earning commission approval in January 2009. But Mickens residents complained they didn't learn about the project until two weeks ago, when they saw contractors with clipboards milling about the wastewater plant.
"We regard this plant as a treacherous eyesore," Tavaris Elliott, 33, a father of four who lives across the street from the baseball field, told the Times. "It smells awful and a buzzer system at the plant is constantly noisy. The plant attracts mosquitoes and I can only imagine what's happening to our groundwater."
After confronting the contractors at the site Sept. 28, Elliott pulled records detailing the plans for the sewer plant expansion. He began circulating a petition to fight the project and save the ballfield.
"I've always felt powerless against City Hall," resident Hazel Wells told the Times. "Sometimes I'd go to the commission meetings and just sit and cry. But now I'm 60 years old and I feel like Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple saying 'all my life I had to fight...' Rather than feeling stagnated, this cause had elevated me."
News of the project also surprised longtime City Commissioner Eunice Penix, who thought the 2 million gallon storage tank was going elsewhere.
"I'm really upset about this," Penix told the Times before Tuesday's meeting, "because I didn't know that a treatment plant was going in there in the first place. Now this? Going on in my neighborhood? As I understood the project, it would be at another location and the silo would be placed underground.
"I realize that it is city property, but you don't keep doing things like this without informing the citizens impacted by them," she said.
Penix made the motion Tuesday evening for a moratorium on the project. The motion was amended to stop the work for now, evaluate other options and find out if any delays will threaten the millions of dollars in Department of Environmental Protection grants and loans lined up for the project.
Commissioners will revisit the issue at their Oct. 25 meeting.