Hillsborough kills incinerator permit request in Lutz

Neighbors object to the application from the Geraci family for around-the-clock burning of yard waste.
Jennifer Messer of Lutz speaks in opposition to a proposed yard waste incinerator on Thursday.
Jennifer Messer of Lutz speaks in opposition to a proposed yard waste incinerator on Thursday. [ C.T. BOWEN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2022|Updated Aug. 18, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners, sitting as environmental regulators, denied permission Thursday for yard waste incinerators to operate in Lutz.

Commissioner Ken Hagan made the motion to stop work on the application from Louis Geraci LLLP to put the incinerators on Crystal Lake Road east of N Dale Mabry Highway. The location, near Idlewild Baptist Church, an adult living facility and residential neighborhoods, sparked overwhelming objections from residents raising concerns about air pollutants.

“The applicants for this facility are putting the health of our children, our elderly, our wildlife and ourselves at risk,” said Allison Jacobs. “It doesn’t make sense. This project is a mistake.”

Dozens more agreed, including state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Hagan.

“The notion of building and operating a commercial incinerator on a permanent basis in a residential neighborhood is outrageous,” he said.

Peter Geraci signed the application for the incinerators. His family has gained notoriety for its substantial land holdings in Lutz in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

The Geracis sold 591 acres in 1985 that became the Northgate Square shopping center and the Calusa Trace neighborhood off N Dale Mabry Highway. Two years earlier, the property was at the center of a public corruption investigation when three Hillsborough County commissioners and a lawyer went to prison for negotiating bribes to rezone the land. Peter Geraci and his brother, Nick, testified in the investigation but were not charged.

On Thursday, Commissioner Mariella Smith criticized the incinerator proposal for its lack of transparency. Residents at the lectern used words like “duplicitous” and “dishonest.” The commission rezoned 173 acres of Geraci property in November for a 200-home subdivision from Lennar and 25 acres for rural uses.

The rezoning application, however, didn’t mention the now-revealed rural use: installing a pair of 40-foot-long metal incinerators to dispose of 22,000 tons of trees and yard waste annually during 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week burning. To do so requires an air pollution permit from the Environmental Protection Commission.

The Environmental Protection Commission, however, considers those permit applications as a contracted agent of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Stopping the application process, in effect, means the permit would be issued automatically after 90 days, according to state law, said Rick Muratti, attorney for the Environmental Protection Commission.

Commissioners hesitated after hearing Muratti’s opinion, but Hagan was unfazed. Commissioners Stacy White and Gwen Myers voiced support for Hagan’s motion.

“No one wants to smell that odor. This has to die a natural death today,” said Myers.

The commission agreed unanimously. The vote, however, does not mean the project is dead because final authority rests with the state. The county also forfeits the opportunity to negotiate operating conditions for the incinerators, said Reginald Sanford of the environmental commission staff.

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Commissioners said they want to address the proposed incinerators through their own permitting and land-use procedures and were prepared to defend their position in court.

“I hope this is the right strategy because we want to kill it,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.