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Pasco mine fight ends amid rancor of new state law on citizen land-use challenges

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times (2013)  A dump truck emerges from behind a pile of dirt and sand at the Lago Verde sand mine in rural, northern Pasco County. Residents challenging the county’s approval of the mine have given up their legal fight.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2013) A dump truck emerges from behind a pile of dirt and sand at the Lago Verde sand mine in rural, northern Pasco County. Residents challenging the county’s approval of the mine have given up their legal fight.
Published Aug. 21, 2019

Residents contesting lime-rock mining in rural, northern Pasco County have given up their six-year fight, done in by a controversial new state law critics say will limit citizen challenges to local development orders.

"To say that I am vehemently upset would be an understatement,'' said Robert J. Howell, who lives near the mines, west of U.S. 41 and about 3 miles south of the Hernando County line. "This law basically kills anybody's right to protest a seeming contradiction in the comp plan. No average citizen can afford a lawsuit under this bill.''

The bill is HB 7103, approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It included a late-in-the-session addition that drew no legislative debate nor public testimony, requiring losing parties in comprehensive plan challenges to pay the opposing party's legal bills.

The environmental advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Florida called the law "destructive'' and said "a future of poor planning and development decisions looms in Florida.'' The group had asked DeSantis to veto the bill and now wants legislators to rescind it in 2020.

"The new law DeSantis just signed is truly a sad day for Pasco County residents and even a worse one for all Floridians,'' said Myles Friedland of Land O' Lakes. "This is not a nail in the coffin. This is all the nails in the coffin. The coffin is six feet deep and the dirt is already on top of it.''

Howell and Friedland were plaintiffs in legal challenges to county authorization of two rock mines in north-central Pasco. The approved mining operations defied the county's own land-planning rules, they said, by allowing heavy industry to supersede protections for agricultural, residential and environmentally sensitive property in the vicinity.

The first suit challenged the 2013 decision expanding the Lago Verde mine, which came after the county commission originally turned down the landowner's request to blast for lime rock. The commission reversed itself and approved a mediated settlement after the mine owner, Outlaw Ridge Inc., sued the county. The legal challenge from Howell and Frieldland had been expected to go to trial in the fall.

The pair also contested the county's 2017 approval of the Seven Diamonds LLC mine, adjoining the Lago Verde site. That mine has permission to excavate 15 million cubic yards of limestone from about a quarter of its 285-acre site. After mining 7 million cubic yards of sand, the company said it planned to use explosive to retrieve subterranean lime rock from as far down as 90 feet below the water table. Lime rock is a raw material used in road building, cinder blocks and other concrete construction.

Approval came over objections from residents in the nearby Shady Acres neighborhood, who said Lago Verde's lime-rock blasting rattled homes, cracked tiles and walls and provoked fearful fits among an autistic child and a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. The mines, they said, reduced their property values and diminished their quality of life.

But in June, a day before DeSantis signed HB7103 into law, Howell and Friedland dropped their suits that had been pending in Pasco Circuit Court. Howell said they couldn't take the risk of absorbing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, even though they were confident they could win the Lago Verde suit.

"It's just agonizingly painful that we had to give up on this because the Legislature thought it was in the best interests of selected individuals to push this legislation through,'' said Howell.

Pasco County attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder declined comment on withdrawn lawsuits.

"I feel sorry for all of the residents near the mine that were there for many years before the mines were approved," said Friedland. "Our elected Pasco County commissioners just don't care.''

The neighborhood, said Howell, ""will never be the same. Ever.''

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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