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Original article - Sun-Herald


Bill would rescind county controls over limestone mining

Environmental groups oppose state 'pre-emption' power

A bill proposed by a Southwest Florida senator would go back in time to strip counties of actions they took since March 2007 to prevent limestone gravel mines.

But, the proposed bill, SB 2406 sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is quickly generating opposition from the Florida Association of Counties and at least 13 Southwest Florida environmental and community planning organizations.

Charlotte County may soon be next.

An assistant Charlotte County attorney and a county land development supervisor say they see the bill as a move to transfer control over where and how mining can be conducted from local governments to the state. That would be "problematic," said County Attorney Janette Knowlton.

Bennett and Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, however, say the legislation is needed to stop a trend in which some counties adopt moratoriums on mining. That could hamstring Florida's big road construction projects in the future, said Bennett.

"Basically, what we're concerned about is a road building problem," Bennett said. "We need the aggregate to build the roads and some of these places, particularly in South Florida, people are screaming about the environment and yet they want the roads to get built, too."

The problem with the moratoriums is that they force mining companies to seek out rock supplies in neighboring counties that don't have moratoriums, Kreegel said.

"(The bill) will have some controversy, but I think counties and cities need to come to grips with the fact we need aggregate," he said. "You can't keep passing the buck."

They also say the local groups opposed to the bill should be contacting them to discuss their concerns now, as the bill proceeds through the Legislature's committee process.

The bill states that no county or city may "enact or enforce" any rule that "prohibits or prevents" the excavation of a limerock mine on lands where mining would have been a permissible use as of March 1, 2007.

Also, the bill would grant agencies that review the impacts to environmental resources the right to expedite the permitting process for such mines.

The bill comes in response to a report on options for assuring a supply of aggregate for future road projects drafted by a state aggregate resource task force in January. But, the two measures in the bill represent the task force's most industry-protective options, said Charlotte County Assistant Attorney Derek Rooney, who monitored the task force's deliberations.

Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, said she is likely to sponsor a House version of the bill. But, she said it's too early to say whether her bill will mirror Bennett's.

"I still don't know what the legislation is going to look like," she said. "I have to read that (task force) report first."

As chairwoman of the House Committee on Environmental Protection, Williams said she convened a workshop on the bill Wednesday. Only four environmental lobbyists attended, she said.

"My position is, if a county wants to pre-empt a company or a mom-and-pop from doing a mining operation and the property is zoned for mining, you almost have to buy it from them or you'll be facing the Burt Harris (private property rights) Act," she said.

The problem is that many counties -- including Charlotte -- had no special zone for mining operations before March 2007, explained Rooney. Typically, in those counties, mining was considered permissible in agricultural or agricultural estate zones.

Charlotte County, in reaction to a growing stack of mining permit applications, adopted a stricter mine operation ordinance in July and an excavation zoning classification in December. Both those measures could be erased by the legislation, depending on how state regulators implement it, said Rooney.


Reacting to ruckus

The coalition of environmental and civic groups wrote a letter Feb. 27 -- some two weeks before the bill was filed -- expressing concerns that the legislation would "severely limit the ability of local government to determine if a mining application is consistent with local land use regulations."

The letter also called for any bill on mining controls to be steered to Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, so he could direct the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation to consider the concerns. Saunders is chairman of the committee.

The groups writing the letter include the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Audubon of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation.

To solve the supply problem, the environmental groups also suggested an in-depth effort to map out the supply areas and calculate the demand for each grade of aggregate. The state should also research how mining would impact surface and groundwater resources.

After Bennett was advised this week of the letter, he ripped the environmental community for not contacting him to discuss their concerns.

"I've had not one, nada, zero calls from the environmental groups," said Bennett, a senior member of the Legislature who sits on no less than 11 committees.

"This (lack of discussion) is typical from the environmental groups," he added. "I don't have time for people who do business that way."

The Florida Association of Counties is also opposed to any legislation that "reduces or eliminates the county government role in siting mines," according to the FAC's legislative attorney Diana Ferguson.

The bill represents the Legislature's reaction to a chain of anti-mining developments in recent years. They included a federal judge's order last year to halt mining in the so-called Lake Belt region of southern Palm Beach and northern Miami-Dade counties.

The order was handed down after litigants proved that heavy mining had drawn down wetlands in the Everglades.

Several other counties also began adopting moratoriums. Lee County, for example, adopted a one-year moratorium to study the impacts.

As a result, the Department of Transportation became concerned there won't be enough gravel to build highways and other major projects in the future. That sparked the creation of the task force.


Scrapping rules

Charlotte County's July ordinance authorized the county, for the first time ever, to require mine operators to install monitoring wells to determine the actual impacts of their excavations on underground water resources, said Barbara Jeffries, county land development supervisor.

The county's December zoning code, for the first time, prohibited mines within 1 mile of the Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal waterways, Charlotte Harbor or the Peace River west of Interstate 75. It also states that mining activities should not negatively impact other special resources, specifically including the Peace and Myakka rivers and Shell, Prairie and Alligator creeks.

Jeffries contends the county's ordinances hold miners responsible for impacts without prohibiting their operations. Bennett's bill would erase those ordinances and place the county under a 2003 mining ordinance, under which only one mine proposal was ever denied, she said.

Currently, the county has 90 active or pending mine permits, she said.

Any law barring counties from prohibiting mining removes a powerful "bargaining chip" from Charlotte County's mine permitting process, said Jeffries.

"You have to have the ability to say no," she said.

"I'd have to know more about the bill, but it seems the intent is to rip the local counties' abilities to control where these activities occur and pull it up to Tallahassee," said Sue Reske, chairwoman of the Greater Charlotte Harbor Group of the Sierra Club, which lobbied in support of the county's ordinances.

You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com.



Staff Writer



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