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Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2015 4:02pm
BROOKSVILLE — The controversy over a plan to mine lime rock on property west of Brooksville is likely to resume Tuesday before the Hernando County Commission.
The quick return of the issue comes because a consensus by commissioners in December to conduct an economic impact study on the proposal by Cemex Constructions Materials Florida is now being questioned and is up for further public discussion and a possible reversal.
The study was first encouraged by residents who are against the proposal to change the county’s comprehensive plan to allow mining for 20 years on 573 acres currently designated for residential use between Fort Dade Avenue and Cortez Boulevard. County Commissioner Diane Rowden took up the cause at the Dec. 9 commission hearing, when she cast the sole vote against transmitting the mining proposal to the state for review — the first of several steps that are required before a final vote on the change is taken by the commission.
Rowden questioned why no economic impact study was provided since the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission had raised the question months ago. Before making such an important decision, she said, commissioners need to know the positive and negative impacts of using land destined for residential use for mining instead. A central question was which land use would provide the best job generation, tax base growth and sales tax growth.
“I feel the applicant will inform us of all the positive impacts,” Rowden noted, “but that’s their business.”
She called for an independent third party to be brought in for an analysis.
“The decision is too big, too important to depend on a one-sided, biased point of view,” she said, noting that the future of the county, “the best of the Nature Coast … depends on us to get this right.”
Although there was no support from other commissioners before they voted hours later to transmit the plan to the state for review, at the end of the commission meeting that day, Commissioner Jim Adkins asked the county’s purchasing official to bring back a quote on how much an economic impact study would cost.
The following week, Russ Wetherington, assistant administrator for general services, told commissioners that the county could contract with the author of a Levy County study on the economic impact of mining, economist and professor Richard Weisskoff, for a study for less than $35,000. Commissioners agreed, and County Administrator Len Sossamon told Wetherington to get a contract with a firm quote.
Weisskoff’s 2010 Levy study concluded that nature-based tourism and recreation would be more economically beneficial to Levy than large-scale mining in the Gulf Hammock area.
“The pursuit of an industrial path would sacrifice the county’s real legacy, which is to guard its forests and wetlands, to fish and boat in its waters, to farm the land and harvest the timber and develop a cluster of low-impact outdoor activities of unsurpassed variety, accessibility and affordability,” he wrote.
Since Hernando commissioners reached their consensus to move forward with a study, some new questions have been raised, and the topic will be reconsidered Tuesday, Wetherington told the Tampa Bay Times.
“It has been delayed … to get more direction” from the commission, he said.
The question is whether the county needs to spend money when the state is already reviewing the mining proposal. More research is needed because the county wants to be sure it gets an unbiased review, Wetherington said.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he was not aware that the review was coming back to the commission, but he was glad that it was because he has concerns about Weisskoff’s possible bias.
DeeVon Quirolo, a leader of the resident group fighting the mining proposal, does not favor delaying the study. She also argued that the kind of review done by the state since old growth management rules were changed is not a replacement for a locally performed economic impact study.
In addition, she took issue with the implication that Weisskoff’s views might be biased and wondered what had happened to change commissioners’ minds.
“Dr. Weisskoff is a Harvard-educated professional with extensive experience in analyzing factual economic data for communities throughout Florida,” Quirolo said. “He is very qualified to do the study and has in fact done an excellent study for nearby Levy County. It is apparent that pressure is being applied to the county by the applicants, who do not want such a professional impact study done because they fear the outcome.”
Cemex officials have said their company will have a positive economic impact on Hernando County, as mining has been good for the county historically. In a statement released after the commission vote last month, Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl wrote, “Cemex’s Brooksville operations have a positive, significant and far-reaching impact on the local and state economies.”
Mining expansion “will allow us to continue to manufacture high-quality products locally that are used in the construction of roads, schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure in the state of Florida. It will also allow us to continue to provide quality jobs and support the local economy through partnerships with local businesses and suppliers.”
After the review is complete by state agencies — including the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Transportation — the County Commission will again hold a public hearing. At least four of the five commissioners have to approve any change to the comprehensive plan.
Mining would still be years away because other approvals must follow. Even if the rezonings and master mining plan processes go forward without appeals, mining likely couldn’t start until 2018 or later, county senior planner Paul Wieczorek said.
But Quirolo and the neighbors in opposition do not want to see the process get that far down the road. They are planning a presentation to the County Commission when the final hearing on the comp plan change is scheduled. They plan to bring experts and residents to bolster their assertion that mining the site would damage the environment, the health of nearby residents and the quality of life.
“This is going to have a huge bearing on our future,” Quirolo said. “The citizens really need to be heard on this.”
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.