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  1. Hernando

Cemex wins ruling and can expand lime rock mine near Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — CEMEX Construction Materials Florida has won the legal case that blocked its expansion into new mining territory west of Brooksville. It comes after eight years of testimony by dozens of experts, a half dozen public meetings and hundreds of signed petitions opposing the expansion.

Administrative law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk ruled May 1 that the opposition had not proved "beyond fair debate" that the Hernando County Commission decision last year to rezone the 730 acres south of Fort Dade Avenue was contrary to the county's comprehensive plan for growth. Of the total, 572 acres are slated for lime rock mining.

Van Wyk also ruled that the county did not fail to protect the adjacent residential community, as the plan required. And the commission decision did not allow mining in viable gopher tortoise habitat, she ruled, because the 54 burrows found there did not indicate a viable population.

She also found the neighbors' argument that the mining expansion could negatively impact the Bayfront Health hospital across the street "was not persuasive.''

More residential property is likely not needed in the area in the near future, CEMEX experts argued. Additionally, an economic development expert testified that the expansion "will generate $38 million in net fiscal revenue to the county during the 20-year lifespan of the mining operation,'' according to the judge's order.

"Petitioner did not introduce any relevant credible data or analysis which contradicted the voluminous data submitted in support of the application,'' the judge wrote.

Neighbor Heinrich Bracker filed the challenge with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings in July, shortly after the County Commission approved both the rezoning and the change in its comprehensive plan that allowed the mining expansion.

Previous coverage: Mine neighbor files legal action over expansion plan

CEMEX first filed for an expansion in 2011 and was fought by residents over the years.

The Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission last year recommended denying the CEMEX expansion, but the County Commission subsequently approved it.

The faces on the County Commission had changed from earlier boards that did not generate enough support for an expansion. The County Commission also repealed its super-majority ordinance in 2017, which had required four of five commissioners to approve a comprehensive plan change, a rule that cost CEMEX approval a few years ago.

Neighbors voiced concerns about their property values, habitat destruction, water quality problems, potential damage to the adjacent historical Spring Hill Cemetery, continuing air quality problems from the operation, damage and disruption from blasting, and a negative impact on tourism because the mining expansion would come to the western entrance of Brooksville.

Previous coverage: Hernando commission approves mining expansion

County commissioners, several of whom have received multiple campaign contributions from CEMEX-related consultants, didn't buy the arguments.

They stood by the fact that CEMEX is the county's largest taxpayer and a major employer.

Previous coverage: Commission candidates face questions about campaign contributions

The legal ruling was a blow for Brooksville resident DeeVon Quirolo, who has spearheaded opposition by gathering petitions, rallying residents and helping to raise money for consultants and attorneys. She said last week that she felt out-gunned at every corner.

"It's hard to believe that open-pit mining across from our community hospital, in an area zoned residential, on land within the Weeki Wachee Springshed, containing an historic cemetery, will be allowed, despite years of broad public opposition," she said. "Shows you how power and money can tip the scales of justice, and now Brooksville residents will have to live with the consequences for the next 20 years.''

The land will be leased to CEMEX and later turned over for residential development. It has been owned by several prominent local business people, including former mining executive Tommy Bronson and real estate broker Robert Buckner.

"It is a sad time for all of us that live, work, formerly used Bayfront Brooksville Hospital, and have respect for the deceased in the cemetery,'' resident Mary Ellen Urban wrote to supporters in an email last week. A surveyor was working on Fort Dade on recent days, she said, likely preparing for changes in the road.

One of the arguments against extending the mining south of Fort Dade Road was that it would damage a scenic tree canopy. CEMEX officials have said they would run a conveyor belt over the trees to transport materials to the existing mine north of Fort Dade.

"CEMEX operations produce materials essential to roads, bridges, schools, homes and hospitals in the region and across Florida," the company said in a statement released by external communications manager Walker Robinson. "Our facility in Hernando County helps secure a locally-sourced supply of FDOT-approved construction aggregate for the construction industry and projects that support the county's economic development.

"The ruling affirms the prior decision of the County Commission, which will sustain hundreds of local jobs and secure millions of tax dollars for local schools in Hernando County over the next 20 years. CEMEX strives to be a good neighbor in the communities where we live and operate. We look forward to continuing our long-standing relationship with the people of Hernando County."

Jon Jouben, deputy county attorney, said last week that the county did not wish to comment on the ruling.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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