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Underground Showdown

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 25, 2008
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Underground Showdown

Lee County landowners are fighting to preserve their property rights as the county leans toward greater mining restrictions.

An epic legal battle is likely to get underway in Lee County over land uses on nearly one-fourth of the county.

On the one side are landowners who want to preserve their rights to mining and on the other are environmentalists and a handful of vocal residents who want to limit that use.

At issue is the fact that Lee County sits on a huge deposit of limestone rock for construction of roads and buildings. It's valuable because it's one of just three areas in the state where there's enough rock to mine in large quantities.

Lee County commissioners imposed a one-year moratorium on permitting new mines while they commissioned a study of the area. The moratorium expired this month, the study failed to resolve the major issues and the county threw up new barriers for landowners who want to preserve their right to mine.

"We're sort of in a gold rush," says Bill Spikowski, the principal of Spikowski Planning Associates and the county's former director of growth management. Indeed, by some estimates there could be as much as $10 billion worth of limestone rock under 83,000 acres in southeast Lee County.

Now that the moratorium has expired, landowners such as Troyer Brothers farm have filed applications for permits to mine on their land, which they now use to grow potatoes. But the county has added regulatory hurdles such as a "pre-application" meeting that will set them back another six months.

These new hurdles give Lee County commissioners more time to consider how they plan to regulate land uses in an area where mining and farming have long been allowed. Environmentalists and a band of about 450 residents who moved into the mining areas are pressuring commissioners to restrict or ban mining.

Dover, Kohl & Partners, the Coral Gables-based planning firm hired by the county to study the problem, recommended restricting mines to a small area. "Mining was never thought to be a big issue....but it is now," acknowledges Victor Dover, the firm's principal. That's because the courts temporarily halted mining in Miami-Dade County and the price of limestone rock doubled.

Notably absent from Dover, Kohl's report is a cost analysis of more regulations. For example, the firm couldn't say how much money it would cost the county to compensate landowners for taking away their rights to mine or to buy their land for conservation.

Maybe that's because everyone knows it would be very expensive. Along Corkscrew Road, for example, diminution of property values in excess of $1 billion could occur if mining is removed as an allowable use, estimates Dennis Gilkey, a consultant to landowners in the area.

"There's not enough money to purchase all that land," concedes Ray Judah, chairman of the Lee County commission. And under state law, the county would have to reimburse property owners for lost value.

Judah believes the county can restrict mines without reimbursement because the creation of the mining area occurred before the state law that forces the government to compensate landowners for regulatory restrictions that reduce property values.

There's also conflicting evidence about mining's impact on the hydrology of the area. The 83,000 acres was set aside to comply with state comprehensive land-use requirements 18 years ago, not necessarily because it was a scientifically proven area for future drinking water sources. "It's not pristine by any stretch of the imagination," says Dan DeLisi, a principal with the planning firm DeLisi Fitzgerald.

With uncertain science, landowners are likely going to take the county to court if it decides to restrict mining. The commission is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

-Jean Gruss


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