ZEPHYRHILLS — Mil-Tool and Plastics Inc. sits on the edge of the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, in the area city officials are contemplating for brownfield status.
Milton Gauger, who owns the plastics and tool manufacturing company, isn't concerned the building he erected in 1987 sits on contaminated ground. He has no reason to believe it does. He's more worried that the brownfield designation could bring a higher cost of doing business because he had no plans to develop his property.
"We're insurance poor," he said. "We've got policies on everything."
The Zephyrhills City Council is expected to take its first vote Jan. 23 on whether to proceed with a brownfield designation — a status for properties that face development challenges because they are either contaminated or perceived to be. The designation can pave the way for attractive economic incentives. But some property owners worry the label could also hurt property values and Zephyrhills' image as "The City of Pure Water."
"I just feel that it's not fair," business and property owner John Bolender said recently. "Are they gonna change the sign to 'City of Pure Water. Kinda?' "
Last week Bolender also questioned whether the move could bring higher insurance costs to affected property owners. He said that when his commercial warehouse properties near the airport were originally included in the proposed brownfield area, he called his insurance agent to see if the designation would increase his commercial liability insurance. He said he was told it would significantly go up, even if his property wasn't contaminated.
But brownfield property insurance expert Patricia Schmaltz of Lassiter Ware Insurance said that's not correct. Commercial liability insurance excludes environmental concerns, she said, so the policy shouldn't be affected by a brownfield designation.
What Bolender's agent should have told him about, she said, is an environmental impairment liability policy, which covers possible contamination issues from bodily harm to property damage. An additional policy, of course, would cost more money, but Schmaltz said such policies are for optional protection on brownfield properties.
"Some agents are just learning the environmental realm and others haven't started," she said, adding that awareness of such issues is becoming greater each year.
A brownfield designation comes with financial incentives to redevelop commercial or industrial properties that might be contaminated — or simply suffer from the perception that they are. The perks include $2,500 bonus refunds for every job a company creates on a brownfield site; sales tax credits on building materials in some cases; and state load guarantees from primary lenders of up to 75 percent on all sites. If contaminants are found on the site, property owners could be eligible for cleanup tax credits of up to 50 percent. And eventually, the cleanup and development of these properties boosts the tax base.
After Pasco County received a $1 million grant last year to identify areas that might qualify for brownfield status, county officials identified thousands of acres within in city limits and in the county, along the U.S. 301 corridor, starting south of the city around Jerry Road and Paul S. Buchman Highway, north including the city's airport, and tapering northeast to near Old Lakeland Highway and just south of U.S. 98, where two CSX railroads converge.
Originally, the area included several residential parcels, but city and county officials removed those after the idea upset many homeowners.
"I feel better that we took the residential component out," council President Jodi Wilkeson said during a recent brownfield workshop.
The proposed brownfield area has been cut substantially and now consists of primarily vacant land and pasture land, and some industrial sites closer to the airport off of Chancey Road. The airport property itself, with the exception of its hangars, has been removed.
What remains up for debate is whether the incentives pledged with such a designation outweigh the stigma of having a brownfield area.
"It's really not any different than a CRA perception," Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of development and planning, said about a Community Redevelopment Area, a designation that Zephyrhills and other cities have used to declare an area blighted in order to qualify for special incentives.
The problem, he said, is brownfields can't seem to shake the stigma.
Wilkenson said if most of the property owners are in favor of the designation, then she would likely want to move forward, if due diligence was done for all business owners in the included area.
"Majority rules," she said.
For now, she said, she's still "on the fence."
The council president said she'd rather see money that's designated for the state's brownfield program be used to stimulate the local economy and clean up any contaminated properties than go elsewhere.
Council member Charlie Proctor says he's still researching the issue but so far isn't sold.
"To me it doesn't make a lot of sense to designate and call a whole area a brownfield when there's a big possibility a lot isn't contaminated," he said.
He worries that even though Zephyrhills Water company isn't in the designated zone, that its name could be tainted. He also worries about the smaller businesses.
"We're living in hard times right now and I wouldn't want to cause any more pressure on them," Proctor said.
But some businesses are open to the idea.
Patty Collins, manager of Tony Suits, a skydiving clothing manufacturing company on Air Time Avenue by the airport, said she hadn't heard of the brownfield plan, but as long as it doesn't cost the company money, it could be positive.
"I could bring more business to the area," she said, noting that since the company moved to its current location in 1999, they've already seen growth in the area. "I think that's beneficial to this community."