DADE CITY — Officials say simple geography pointed to the site where the city's sewer plant was built in the 1950s, and basic economics suggest it's better to expand and upgrade that facility than start over elsewhere.
But the city's plans to add a 2 million gallon reclaimed water tank, along with other upgrades to the plant, created a firestorm this fall with the neighbors in Mickens-Harper. Bermice Mathis, a retired school principal whose father was among the founders of the historically black neighborhood in the 1920s, said the plant represents a lingering insult to the community.
"What goes up must come down," said the Rev. Clyde Carter. "Legally, morally, and common sense wise, now is the time to make good on promises."
The galvanizing of the Mickens-Harper residents against the plant expansion was a defining issue in Dade City this year. And for some residents it stirred memories of other racially-charged incidents in the city's past.
'Infected with discrimination'
Levater Holt, a former juvenile corrections officer who now teaches sixth-grade at Pasco Middle School, was among the residents who testified in a 1988 class action suit over the city's failure to include the black neighborhood in a citywide paving project.
U.S. District Court Judge Ben Krentzman's 80-page judgment cited Dade City municipal services as "infected with discrimination." The decision halted all city services until black areas were brought up to par. Also cited were city employment patterns of further discrimination.
One year later, Holt stood with 300 citizens in an uneventful face-off with a Ku Klux Klan rally over the renaming of Main Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard.
On Oct. 1, 1996, Holt was sickened to find human bones on the hood of her car. Six days later she discovered a wooden cross marked with the n-word next to her mailbox. Both incidents were investigated as hate crimes, with no results.
Holt said building the sewer treatment plant in Mickens-Harper represented another low point in the city's race relations. The decision was made in 1952, when black residents had little say in the matter.
"After all, it wasn't until 1975 that Dade City repealed its segregated meetings laws," said Holt, a lifetime resident of Mickens-Harper.
Commissioner Curtis Beebe said there was a logic to the site, however.
"You can look at old drainage maps and see where we had no sewer system at all," Beebe said. "Sewage flowed downstream from Clear Lake south to the pond just behind today's Winn Dixie. The site for a treatment plant was chosen because that flow seemed to accumulate geographically on the grounds of Mickens-Harper."
'The city can expect a challenge ... '
Over the years residents had learned to live with the plant, which they said emitted unpleasant smells. But the resentments resurfaced Sept. 29, when residents saw engineers and contractors with clipboards at the neighborhood baseball field. They discovered the city planned to put a 2 million gallon reclaimed water tank on the field, to store recycled water that would be piped up to the Little Everglades Ranch. The plans had been in the works for years, but the neighborhood was never notified.
The initial shock among neighbors turned to outrage. Petitions were signed and neighbors crowded into three consecutive commissioner sessions with emotional pleas to shelve the project and consider building a new plant elsewhere.
City officials debated options, including the postponement of $2.4 million in grants from Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They discussed alternatives from proceeding with the project while putting up batting cages, to painting the faces of black sports heroes on the sides of the septic tanks, to tearing down the antiquated sewage treatment plant entirely and moving it away from residential areas.
But cost was a major factor. Rehabbing the plant — not including the expansion someday needed to accommodate growth — cost $5.6 million. Building a new plant elsewhere would cost $11.3 million.
On Oct. 25, a split commission voted 3-2 to proceed with construction, with some concessions. The city offered to modify the silo into a 40 foot tower and to move it beyond the centerfield fence. They also committed to install odor controls to tanks, eliminate noise pollution and beautify the park facilities. To demonstrate good faith the city whitewashed the baseball park structure and installed a surveillance camera.
Mickens-Harper residents weren't satisfied, though. The Rev. Nathaniel Sims, president of Pasco's chapter of the NAACP, said he was positioned to find aggressive legal representation.
"The city can expect a challenge to further progress when we address environmental and health concerns," Sims said.
At the commission's Dec. 13 meeting, Carter announced the formation of Concerned Citizens of the City of Dade City and Pasco County Inc. before commissioner Bill Dennis reversed course and made a motion to halt the tank project. Commissioners Eunice Penix and Camille Hernandez, who had objected to site before, joined him in a 3-2 vote.
This created a scramble at City Hall to negotiate grant extensions from Swiftmud and the USDA while city officials weigh their options. The matter is expected to return to commissioners Jan. 10.