BROOKSVILLE — A year has passed since officials from Cemex Construction Materials Florida stood before a room full of Hernando County residents and explained why they were proposing a significant expansion of their lime rock mining operation on 573 acres west of Brooksville.
The County Commission approval of the comprehensive plan change to allow the mining for 20 years will expand the life of the historically significant industry, company officials said.
Opponents, including Neighbors Against Mining, argue that the site, now designated for residential development, is not suited or needed for mining and incompatible with the surrounding area.
They have also pointed a spotlight on the fact that the land is owned by prominent and influential local business leaders, including Tommy Bronson, Joe Mason, Jim Kimbrough and Robert Buckner.
While the group has raised a familiar list of issues, ranging from habitat destruction and lower property values to health concerns and damage to the Fort Dade Avenue tree canopy, they have ratcheted up their arguments and added new ones as they approach the commission's final public hearing on the Cemex request, scheduled for Tuesday.
At the most recent County Commission meeting, DeeVon Quirolo, who has headed up the opposition, raised a series of questions about whether the self-reporting Cemex does on its blasting levels is accurate and whether anyone even checks to be sure state rules are being met.
Even though residents have complained about blasting and the Florida Administrative Code requires that mines report all complaints, "Cemex has never reported a single complaint,'' Quirolo told commissioners.
Cemex takes issue with Quirolo.
"It is very clear to us that much of the data she is looking at has been grossly misinterpreted,'' said Sara Engdahl, Cemex spokeswoman.
Engdahl noted that Cemex will present a letter on Tuesday showing that the company is in full compliance with all blasting regulations.
Quirolo said she wished the economic impact study done by the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council had gone further in comparing future mining to other potential land uses, but she did not disagree with the study's conclusion that continuing mining activity would not significantly improve the county's economic position.
After reading the study, Quirolo gathered tourism-related statistics from Visit Florida.
In 2013, travel spending to Hernando County topped $93 million, generated $34.9 million in payroll for employees, employed 2,090 people and generated millions in state and federal tax receipts.
"It shows that tourism is 10 times stronger in this county than mining, and that's an economic fact,'' Quirolo said.
Engdahl said the mining expansion will not affect tourism and noted that the higher-than-average wages and full-benefit jobs it provides surpass the economic value of tourism-related jobs. With $12 million in wages and cement manufacturing making up 12 percent of the county's manufacturing jobs, "the impact is significant, and there is really no denying that,'' Engdahl said.
Quirolo also is unhappy with the settlement Hernando County has reached with Cemex over what the company must do to mitigate for the destruction of more than 300 acres of hardwood hammock habitat, which is to place a conservation easement on a 100-acre parcel just south of Lake Lindsey Road.
"It's not an appropriate trade-off,'' she said.
Cemex officials have been working with the appropriate agencies to meet their environmental responsibilities, Engdahl countered, "and we've reached a more-than-fair agreement.''
She said the commission should approve the application because "this project ensures economic viability for the county, will continue to provide solid jobs as well as much-needed product for future construction in the state of Florida.''
"The project is a temporary use for the land and will be reclaimed back to where it can be developed for a variety of uses," Engdahl said. "It will be done safely and in an environmentally conscious manner.''
The comprehensive plan change — which already has been reviewed by local officials and state agencies — will require at least four yes votes. Mining opponents, who have gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition, have been meeting with commissioners to try to swing the number to their advantage.
Brooksville resident Shirley Miketinac used the same tactic at a recent commission meeting.
"I appeal to you to think of this moment in time as the most important thing that you will ever do, to protect the beauty and unique lifestyle Hernando County has to offer,'' Miketinac said.
Vote no, she urged commissioners, "with a clear conscience, knowing that nothing else influenced you but to do the right thing at the right time and earn the respect of the overwhelming majority of the constituents in the county, to be proud and make us proud that you stood up for us, the little guys.''