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Mining decision nears

The proposed Hernando County mining ordinance is so divisive that the mining companies themselves don't necessarily agree on what its terms should be, says Grant Tolbert, manager of the county's Development Department.

"We're not sure if the mines are going to come in here unified or separate," Tolbert said in an interview last week.

Then he paused to consider his fellow county workers. "In fact, I'm not sure the staff is coming in unified or separate."

Mining issues in Hernando have a long history of causing conflicts. In the past decade, as many as five efforts to update the 1978 mining ordinance have ended in failure. And the current proposal has been the most ferociously contested issue since the first draft of it appeared in the fall of 1991.

Finally, it seems the County Commission is nearing a decision. The first of two public hearings on the matter is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the National Guard Armory on Spring Hill Drive; the second hearing is scheduled at the same time and place June 29.

Though the commission should be ready to decide at the end of the second meeting, nothing is guaranteed. Commissioners still face a variety of controversial and potentially insurmountable issues, the stickiest of which is vesting. The county must still decide which of the mine's holdings should be vested, or grandfathered as it is commonly known, and thus exempted from the requirements of the new ordinance.

Tolbert had planned to include the maps outlining exactly what would and what would not be vested as part of the ordinance proposal. If that issue must be decided by a judge, the vote would have to be delayed _ again.

Revisiting past decisions

It was just short of a year ago, after eight months of meetings and public hearings, that a crowd of about 300 packed into the auditorium at the Hernando County Fairgrounds. The process supposedly was in the same stage it is now. That public hearing was to be the first of two that were expected to finally result in a new mining ordinance.

A few minutes into the meeting, though, county commissioners voted unanimously that the mines and their opponents were still too far apart on the issues for the commission to act.

"Nobody was happy with any part of it," said Commissioner June Ester of the draft under consideration. "I don't feel as though we had any choice but to scrap the whole thing."

The decision was widely seen as a way of avoiding a tough issue _ the toughest, in fact _ during the 1992 campaign season. Ester, Commissioner John Richardson and the three others who were serving at the time steadfastly deny that.

"Absolutely not," Richardson said.

In fact, Ester said, it is indicative of the commission's decisiveness that they have faced up to the need to pass a mining ordinance. But also, she and Richardson agreed, there are other reasons this commission has been more determined than previous ones to make a decision on the ordinance.

For one, it is now more necessary than ever.

Most commissioners and county staffers who have had to enforce the current ordinance have recognized that it is full of ambiguities. Even some mining officials have asked for clarifications of the laws governing their operations.

But the mines were once surrounded by forests, farmland and a county of relatively few people, and the conflicts between people and mines were minor ones. Now, Richardson pointed out, the residential areas are creeping ever closer to pits and processing plants. The incompatibility of mining and residing has become an inescapable issue.

"When the population was 14,000 or 15,000, and a lot of these people worked for the mines, it was a different situation. Now the mines have to fit into the whole picture," Richardson said. "Everything has had to change."

Another factor the commissioners are less willing to address: The mines are not the daunting political force they once were.

"I would say that a formerly dominant industry has begun to lose the rights and privileges it once enjoyed," said Doug Bevins, the lawyer for Citizens for a Responsible Mining Ordinance.

In fact, while it once was politically dangerous in Hernando County to oppose the mines, the opposite is now true. It is dangerous not to oppose them _ or at least challenge them on some issues.

Harold Varvel, the former commissioner who had been most sympathetic to the mines' concerns, was defeated last year by a political unknown, Pat Novy. Ginny Brown-Waite, meanwhile, has vaulted from the commission to a seat in the state Senate. She made her political name largely by opposing mining interests and those who were closely associated with them, especially Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason.

"Ginny Brown-Waite is now the senior elected official in the county, for goodness sake," Bevins said.

Origin of the ordinance

Bevins is one of three people most responsible for creating the new mining ordinance draft. After the commission postponed the decision a year ago, the negotiating task was reassigned from the Planning Department to Tolbert's Development Department. He, Bevins and Jake Varn, the Tallahassee-based lawyer representing the Hernando County Mining Association, have met several times to consider various issues.

Both Varn and Bevins have spoken favorably about the process _ with reservations.

The negotiations did not necessarily achieve all-around agreement. In some cases, Tolbert had to simply write in a compromise solution. As a result both sides find certain elements of the proposal unacceptable.

"I'm satisfied that most of the mines are going to find it onerous," Varn said. "I think it's going to be very difficult for new mining to take place under this ordinance."

Besides vesting, the most prickly issue is setbacks _ the distance required between mining activities and property lines. The draft states that most mining activities, including excavating and blasting, be conducted at least 500 feet from residences.

Bevins is standing by Citizens for a Responsible Mining Ordinance's long-held request that mining activities be removed 1,500 feet from the property of homeowners. He plans to argue in favor of wider setbacks at Tuesday's hearing.

Varn, meanwhile, considers the 500-foot figure untenable, particularly for smaller mines.

A 40-acre plot is 1,320 by 1,320 feet, he said. If the mine complied with the 500-foot setbacks on all sides, the company would be allowed to work only a 320-foot square in the center of the property.

But even that issue does not have the potential to stagnate the proceedings that vesting does.

It is Varn's legal opinion that all property permitted for mining is vested _ in other words, virtually all the mines' current holdings.

At Tolbert's request, the mines last week submitted maps of their properties, designating what they considered to be vested. They included all their property. Tolbert, after a brief review, told them to submit new, more realistic plans.

According to Bevins, the issue of vesting is a complex, legal one. Permits are not the only criteria, he said. Also considered should be how much money the owner has spent on the property and how much work has been done.

Usually such matters are decided in court, he said. The commission is in the position of trying to render such a ruling by considering the vesting issue, along with all the other sections of the proposed ordinance, during two public hearings.

In the interest of saving money, both the county and the mines would like to keep the decision out of court. But that is where it will be resolved if the commission cannot decide.

And, once again, the mining ordinance would be on indefinite hold.

"I don't really have a problem with the court making that decision," Ester said.

"If we can't come to an agreement, that might be the best place for that decision to be made."

Mining hearings

The Hernando County Commission has scheduled two public hearings on the proposed new mining ordinance. To accommodate the expected large crowds, the hearings will be at the National Guard Armory at 16386 Spring Hill Drive, across from the Hernando County Jail. The first hearing will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The second hearing is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. June Where they stand

Here are the key issues in Hernando County's proposed mining ordinance and the positions of both the Hernando County Mining Association and the Citizens for a Responsible Mining Ordinance (CARMO). On some issues, such as reclamation, the two sides have little quarrel with the proposed ordinance. On others, such as setbacks, both sides still adamantly object to the draft.

Setbacks (the distance required between mining activity and the nearest property lines)

Draft: 500 feet from residences for most mining activity, including blasting; 300 feet from commercial areas; 100 feet from agricultural areas.

Mines: 100 feet from residential property lines.

CARMO: 1,500 feet from residential property lines.

Buffers (the wooded strip between mining and activity and property lines)

Draft: 80 percent opaque and 100 feet wide.

Mines: 80 percent opaque and 100 feet wide.

CARMO: 100 percent opaque and at least 300 feet wide.

Blasting

Draft: Standards of blasting intensity are taken from federal mining regulations.

Mines: Agree with the draft.

CARMO: Believes that these figures are appropriate for coal mining, but not rock mining, and that the county should contract an independent blasting expert to develop new standards.

Water

Draft: Regulations on water standards were eliminated from the draft, allowing Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) to continue to regulate water use.

Mines: Agree with the draft.

CARMO: Strongly believes that the ordinance should give the county the power to take water use into consideration during five-year reviews of each mining permit.

Permitting

Draft: Twenty-five year mining permits, which are subject to extensive reviews every five years.

Mines: Permits, either indefinite or 25 years, not subject to reviews.

CARMO: Five-year mining permits.

Security (the amount of money put up by the mines to ensure they will reclaim mined land)

Draft: Determined by an engineer or other approved professional who forecasts the cost of reclaiming each parcel.

Mines: Agree with the draft.

CARMO: Wants to require $5,000 per acre of land to be reclaimed.

Reclamation

Draft: Mines will have to restore or preserve 20 percent of mined lands to original forest. In most cases, sheer walls will have to be sloped, and native species encouraged in pit bottoms.

Mines: Agree with draft, which essentially duplicates state requirements.

CARMO: Would like to see more land returned to original state.

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