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Pasco mines for answers on controversial limerock plan

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2013) Pasco County approval of the Lago Verde mine remains mired in litigation, but on Nov. 28, commissioners will be asked to approve a second nearby mine off U.S. 41 in north-central Pasco.

Pasco commissioners are about to be asked their definition of rural-agricultural lifestyle.

Is it a cluster of homes on a multi-acre lots owned and occupied by gentlemen farmers and horse enthusiasts where the former serenity might be interrupted by an occasional mooing cow?

Or is it blasts from subterranean explosions, the mechanical racket of crushing limestone and the rumble of dump trucks barreling down a two-lane road in the name of capitalism?

The question could be answered, at least temporarily, on Nov. 28 when commissioners consider an application from Seven Diamonds LLC, a company affiliated with prominent eye surgeon and influential developer Dr. James P. Gills, to operate a sand and limerock mine on nearly 285 acres west of U.S. 41, about 5.5 miles north of State Road 52 in rural north-central Pasco.

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Except, commissioners might not have the final say. The ultimate decision could rest with a judge and/or jury if this application from Seven Diamonds follows the same route as its neighbor to the immediate south and east, the Lago Verde mine — the subject of an ongoing circuit court suit from neighboring property owners.

And that is one of the leading arguments from the people living nearby in the 47-parcel neighborhood known as Shady Acres. How can the county rule on the Seven Diamonds mine being compatible with surrounding property when the legality of the Lago Verde mine remains in dispute?

Plus, they point to the county's own recent history. In 2012, the county Planning Commission, Development Review Commission and Board of County Commissioners all ruled against the original mining application from Lago Verde's owners, Outlaw Ridge Inc. The county commission, with only Commissioner Jack Mariano dissenting, reversed itself in 2013 after a legal challenge from Outlaw Ridge that ended in a mediated settlement over the neighbors' objections.

The proposal from Seven Diamonds is a prickly issue. On one side is a group of well-informed residents willing to finance a legal fight over their diminished quality of life and who have engaged more than 3,400 others to sign petitions opposing the mine, fearing it will damage the Weeki Wachee Water Shed. (The state Department of Environmental Protection already has issued an environmental permit allowing Seven Diamonds to operate.)

On the other side is the well-known development team that built Trinity, sits on the Pasco Economic Development Council board and provides generous political contributions at election time.

In their current campaigns, Commissioners Mike Wells and Mike Moore, the two incumbents facing re-election in 2018, each have accepted $5,000 from Seven Diamond's affiliates. The contributions were bundled from the network of companies tied to Gills.

Last week, in meetings a day apart, both the Pasco Planning Commission — a citizens advisory body to the county commission — and the Development Review Committee — county government's top administrators plus a Pasco Economic Development Council representative — approved Seven Diamonds' plan.

The application is to mine both sand and limerock, but it is the proposal to excavate subterranean limerock that causes nearby residents the most concern for a simple reason: You don't need to blow up sand to get it out of the ground. Limestone is a different story.

Seven Diamonds wants to spend the next 25 years detonating three explosions monthly to help retrieve 14 million cubic yards of limestone, from as deep as 90 feet below the water table, to be used as raw material for road construction and cinder-block homes and buildings.

A single blast entails up to 30 sequential detonations that each would be the equivalent of blowing up approximately 450 to 500 pounds of explosives, according to Nov. 8 testimony before the Planning Commission.

"Everyone has the right to quiet enjoyment of their property. It's pretty hard to have quiet enjoyment ... when explosives are going off and their houses are shaking. That lowers property values, which is important to me and should be important to you,'' said real estate agent Faith Garcia.

The opponents are speaking from experience. Lago Verde also is allowed to detonate explosives three times each month. Nearly two dozen people signed affidavits attesting to interior damage in their homes, lost sleep, diminished peace of mind and near collisions with rock trucks stemming from the Lago Verde blasts, ensuing ground vibrations or transportation operations.

"It is like having an earthquake in the house,'' said Stefanie Schatzman.

Seven Diamonds hired experts from Davie, Orlando, Brooksville and Jacksonville who testified under oath that the Seven Diamonds mine is allowed under the county comprehensive land use plan; is compatible with the neighbors; is good for the economy; will save taxpayers' money on public construction costs; and yes, will cause vibrations but detonating explosives comes under the bailiwick of the state fire marshal, not Pasco County.

They pointed out they are following the county's beefed up mining standards, requiring better noise-containment berms and greater setback requirements, that were adopted after the Lago Verde decision.

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Property owners Robert Howell and Myles Friedland sued after the commissions's 2013 decision on Lago Verde, saying it violated the county's own comprehensive land use plan. A circuit judge initially granted a summary judgment in favor of Lago Verde, but was reversed on appeal.

"The fact that the county included such a qualification for mining involving ancillary processing implies that such mining may not always be consistent with the comprehensive plan,'' Appellate Judge Robert Morris wrote in March 2015 remanding the case back to circuit court for trial. The case is pending and both Friedland and Howell have promised more litigation if the Seven Diamonds mine is approved.

Only two commissioners, Mariano and Kathryn Starkey, remain on the board from the 2013 Lago Verde vote. Here's what they said then:

"This was going to be a rural area, a quiet rural area," Mariano said. "If we allow this one mine … don't we open this up for every one of those places that wants to be a mine?"

"I understand the people's concerns here, and they can be scary,'' said Starkey, "but I don't believe it's going to be as bad as you think it is."

If county commissioners receive the same testimony from residents as the Planning Commission and DRC did, Mariano will be told he was right and Starkey will hear that she was wrong.

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