Tampa Bay Times: Hernando County Commission set to vote on plan for controversial rock mine by Dan DeWitt

December 6, 2014

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Dan DeWitt, Hernando Times Columnist

Saturday, December 6, 2014 3:48pm

BROOKSVILLE — Yellow signs on the north side of State Road 50 announce a public hearing for a land-use change that would allow a rock mine on 573 acres of pasture and forest land west of Brooksville.
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In a way, however, these signs all say the same thing: Hernando County is in the midst of its biggest land-use battle in several years.

On Tuesday, the County Commission will decide whether to recommend a change to the county’s comprehensive plan that would allow the mining and reshape a commercial development previously approved for part of the 730-acre parcel.

Mexico-based Cemex, the world’s largest rock mining company, is seeking the change for the property, which is owned by several well-connected Brooksville business owners, including lawyer Joe Mason and retired mining executive Tommy Bronson.

The company says the mine would be a natural extension of its operations in Hernando. Opponents, who have gathered the signatures of more than 1,000 residents, say the mine would damage the environment and — especially because of its location near the western entrance to Brooksville — the county’s effort to market itself as a hub of ecotourism.

“People expecting to come to the home of the Nature Coast will see a rock mine instead,” said DeeVon Quirolo, president of the Neighbors Against Mining group. “We can’t have it both ways.”

But visitors would see little evidence of mining because of the wooded buffers around it, said Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl, who also described other efforts the company would take to minimize the mine’s impact.

The county would require a 400-foot buffer between SR 50 and the earthen berm around the mine and a 250-foot buffer between the mine and the nearest grave at the historic Spring Hill Cemetery near the mine’s northern border on Fort Dade Avenue.

Not only is this land’s location appropriate for mining, Engdahl said, the lime rock it contains is an increasingly rare resource in Florida. Failing to mine it would result in rock being “imported from elsewhere at increased cost due to transportation and the loss of local jobs and taxes,” the company wrote in documents submitted to the county.

Though this mine would not create additional jobs, Engdahl said, it would extend mining — and mining employment in Hernando — by the 20-year term of the proposed lease.

The rock would be carried from the property by conveyor over Fort Dade and create no added truck traffic on nearby roads, she said.

And once the mining was completed, the land would be reclaimed so it could become a residential development.

The company’s proposal to the county calls the mining an “interim use.”

Not so, Quirolo said.

Not only would mining permanently change the landscape, including hundreds of acres of wooded habitat, it might endanger groundwater.

Cemex, in its application, said the mine would have no impact on the aquifer because the rock would all be mined above the water table.

The Neighbors group has hired a geologist, Noah Kugler of Cape Coral, who says the potential to contaminate and lower the groundwater requires further investigation. Also, the county has sent Cemex a letter outlining the loss of forest habitat and will discuss possible mitigation, said senior planner Paul Wieczorek.

Quirolo disputes Cemex’s contention that blasting would not be loud enough to cause serious disruption, saying current neighbors of Cemex’s operations report the noise results in the “diminution of quality of life” and contributes to a decline in property values.

This issue is particularly worrisome, she said, because of the new mining parcel’s location, across SR 50 from a hospital, Bayfront Health Brooksville.

As for the availability of rock reserves, Cemex submitted a map to the county in 2008 showing its existing mining operation north of the SR 50 site covers about 1,700 acres, a large portion of which has not yet been mined. The company also has a mining plan approved for about 346 acres near Cobb and Yontz roads northwest of Brooksville.

Engdahl said those acreage figures are deceptive because much of that land does not hold the high-quality rock that the new mine would produce. But Quirolo said the expanse of unmined land is an indication “there is no shortage of lime rock in Florida or in Hernando.”

The mining plan came before the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission in July. Quirolo said she suspects the company delayed bringing the proposal to the County Commission until after the November election. But Engdahl said it needed time to address issues raised by the planning commission, which rejected it by a 4-1 vote.

If the County Commission votes in favor of the plan, it would be sent for review to several state agencies. Because it must come back before the commission for final approval — where it would require a favorable vote by four of the five commissioners — Commissioner Nick Nicholson said that “at this point, I will probably vote in favor of it.”

Commissioner Diane Rowden, on the other hand, said a vote in support of the plan now would mean recommending a mine for land at the gateway to Brooksville and along the county’s main east-west corridor.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property that could be developed to support a community atmosphere,” she said. “Why would anyone vote in favor of this?”

Dan DeWitt can be reached at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.

Hernando County Commission set to vote on plan for controversial rock mine 12/06/14 [Last modified: Saturday, December 6, 2014 3:48pm]

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