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Appellate ruling sets up controversial mining case for trial

A dump truck emerges from behind a pile of dirt and sand Wednesday (3/27/13) at the Lago Verde sand mine in Spring Hill where cattle feed in open pastures surrounding the site.
A dump truck emerges from behind a pile of dirt and sand Wednesday (3/27/13) at the Lago Verde sand mine in Spring Hill where cattle feed in open pastures surrounding the site.
Published Apr. 9, 2015

SPRING HILL — The legal battle over mine blasting in north-central Pasco is headed back to a local courtroom after an appeals court overturned a previous ruling that favored the developer over neighbors.

The March 27 opinion from the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the disputed facts in the case — over whether the county-issued development order for Outlaw Ridge Inc. violated Pasco's comprehensive land plan — needed to be decided at a trial. It overturned Circuit Judge Linda Babb's earlier ruling granting a summary judgment for the company.

"We're delighted the District Court of Appeal sent it back for trial, and we look forward to proving our case at trial,'' said Ralf Brookes, attorney for nearby property owners. "We don't believe approval of the mine is consistent with the comprehensive plan.''

Neighboring property owners Robert Howell, Terry Hoppenjans and Myles Friedland sued the county and Outlaw Ridge after a May 2013 decision by county commissioners allowing the company to blast for lime rock at its Lago Verde sand mine on the west side of U.S. 41, about 3 miles south of County Line Road.

Under county rules, land zoned for agricultural/rural use can be mined, but special permission must be obtained from county commissioners if the operation includes ancillary processes like blasting, crushing or grinding in a processing plant. Commissioners rejected Outlaw Ridge's expansion request in 2012, but acquiesced on a 4-1 vote a year later. That vote, with only Commissioner Jack Mariano dissenting, approved a mediated settlement that granted a 15-year mining permit, but required a half-million-dollar escrow account for damages and/or neighbor improvements, and limited blasting to three times monthly.

Outlaw Ridge has said it planned to mine a 50-acre lake site and surround it with upscale homes in a neighborhood called Lago Verde, similar to another Land O'Lakes project off Ehren Cutoff known as Outlaw Ridge.

Nearby property owners, including homeowners in the Shady Acres neighborhood just south of the mine, contended the commission approval violated the county's own comprehensive land use plan. They said they feared the potential for sinkholes, pollution and noise that would diminish their property values while making the area more attractive for future mining.

Since the two sides presented conflicting expert opinions on whether mine blasting was consistent with the county land plan, the matter should be decided at trial, not at a summary judgment hearing, the appeals court said. The requirement for commission approval for blasting is key, the court indicated.

"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 remanding the case to Circuit Court.

"Obviously, we're disappointed in the ruling. But it simply means there will be a trial, and we're confident the facts, when they come out, will support the county's position,'' said David Smolker, the attorney for Outlaw Ridge Inc.

Though Pasco County is one of the named defendants, Smoker's firm is lead counsel for the defense because the property owner is the beneficiary of the commission's decision. Smolker said his client is expected to seek a rehearing before the appeals court.

The ruling "means we'll get our day in court instead of having the Pasco County apparatus try to do an end-around on us,'' said Friedland, one of the plaintiffs. "It should really concern every Pasco County resident what is happening in this corridor with these mines.''