DADE CITY — Since a private company first sought to build a landfill near Dade City two years ago, well-heeled ranchers have bankrolled the charge against it.
Now one of them says that taxpayers should pick up at least some of the tab.
"We've spent a lot of money, and we think it's appropriate for public agencies to step forward," said Bill Blanchard, whose family owns 1,900 acres near the proposed landfill, much of it under conservation protection but some home to a tree and plant business.
Angelo's Aggregate Materials sought permits from the state to build a household garbage landfill on 90 acres, with the possibility of expansion to 1,000 acres. The request drew fierce opposition from neighbors and nearby city governments. Opponents feared the landfill, which would be a mile from the Green Swamp, would contaminate drinking water, lower property values and be prone to sinkholes.
Blanchard and fellow rancher Robert Thomas last year spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbying and experts to fight the project, and made a similar investment in campaign contributions to local and state officials. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection in February denied the permits, citing the sinkhole risks.
Angelo's has appealed the permit denial to the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings. A judge is scheduled to hear the case this fall.
In March, Blanchard's attorney called County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder and asked for help with the appeal.
"He expressed a desire they wished the county to intervene and hire special counsel for solid waste to help out with the litigation," Steinsnyder said.
Steinsnyder advised commissioners against it for a couple of reasons. First, he estimated the county's cost of involvement at between $60,000 and $70,000.
Plus, if Angelo's is successful in overturning the DEP decision, the Pasco County Commission could end up deciding whether to grant a land use change for the company to build.
Bad timing for money
So far the county has taken no position on the landfill except to say that it must seek a comprehensive plan amendment, a tougher standard than what a conditional use permit would require.
Most of the five county commissioners, who have already had to drastically cut library hours and are struggling to plug a nearly $30 million budget hole for the upcoming fiscal year, said legal issues aside, it would be foolish to commit public money to the cause now.
"The dog's got to keep sleeping on the porch," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "With budget constraints, and they're increasing by the minute, it wouldn't make sense for us … to fight this battle on a state level."
Commissioner Michael Cox agreed.
"It's not a good time to be asking the county for money," he said.
Commissioner Ted Schrader acknowledged that opponents have spent "a considerable amount of money" fighting the permit, but said it's in the county's best interest to stay above the fray for now.
Chairman Jack Mariano and Commissioner Pat Mulieri could not be reached for comment.
Blanchard, who was in Colorado on a family vacation, said he knows governments are hurting, though he didn't know "the numbers or anything."
He said the long term economic damage a landfill would cause would far outweigh "the small sum they would spend at this time."
He also does not think the county should bear all the public expense. The Southwest Florida Water Management District and Tampa Bay Water should take a stand, too.
So far, the two agencies have not filed as parties in the appeal.
"Their job is to protect the water for people to drink," he said. "We want to stop spending money and have agencies that were formed to protect water resources start spending."
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.