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Debate swirls over incinerator

Owners of the machinery, which burns tree debris, say they have all the permits. But the neighbors are not happy.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Moe and Martha Futscher were sitting in their screened porch one April day when Mr. Futscher suddenly felt a wave of heat hit his body.

Then the smoke detector went off inside their Mini Farms home, and the couple exchanged puzzled looks.

"I said maybe it's time to change the battery in the smoke detector," recalled Mrs. Futscher, 70. "He said, "I just did.' "

The couple now believes the culprit was the new incinerator on Ed Gerrits' estate, on County Road 495 about a mile west of the Futschers' home. The incinerator can burn up to 10 tons of tree limbs per hour, and Gerrits has been using it since November, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The trees come from lots cleared for construction and from Gerrits' silviculture operations. No household garbage, tires or construction materials are burned there, he said.

Gerrits' son, SMG Inc. owner Sean Gerrits, has a DEP permit to build and test the incinerator, and is awaiting approval of another DEP permit to operate it for the next five years. But the 2,500-degree inferno has sparked several debates.

Neighbors complain the incinerator sends noise, fumes and heat into their community.

"You can actually taste the ash and acidity in the air," said Lenny Kaplan, 55, who lives about a mile east of the incinerator. "Most people in the Mini Farm area came here to retire or to get out of the city with the smoke and the dirt."

And county officials say the property isn't properly zoned for an incinerator.

The Gerritses, father and son, say both complaints are off base.

"This is a 100 percent legitimate operation," Ed Gerrits said Thursday.

Ed Gerrits owns the swath of property stretching a half-mile to the north and west, nearly a mile to the south and 1,500 feet to the east. The land creates a generous buffer around the low-emissions incinerator, he said.

"We're burning the same product as the Division of Forestry when they do burns in the Withlacoochee State Forest," Sean Gerrits said.

The operator, Rusty Elmer, avoids running the incinerator on days when the wind blows toward the Mini Farms, Ed Gerrits said, and half of the neighbors' complaints to DEP came on days when the incinerator was not burning.

DEP spokeswoman Merritt Mitchell said the agency found only one problem with the incinerator, and Gerrits repositioned the device to correct the problem.

"It's better out here in the woods, isolated, where it is bothering nobody, contrary to what some people are (alleging)," Ed Gerrits said.

Sean Gerrits also points to the benefits. The incinerator burns up to 100 tons of tree limbs each day that would otherwise fill debris pits. The ash is mulched with leaves and roots to create a rich, organic compost, while the large tree trunks are sent to a lumber mill, he said.

"We get enough logs in a week to build three to seven homes," Sean Gerrits said.

"It all went to the (construction and demolition debris) landfill before this, to nobody's benefit," Ed Gerrits added.

The zoning issue is more complicated. County officials say the property is designated for rural residential use, which does not allow for an incinerator.

In a May 22 letter, Community Development Director Chuck Dixon gave Ed Gerrits two options: Either move the $140,000 incinerator to his industrial park further up CR 495, or ask the County Commission to rezone the acreage around the incinerator to industrial use.

"We feel that it's a good use. It makes a lot of sense to have a facility like that," Dixon told the Times. "But at the same time, it does need to be in an area that's properly zoned and the county does have jurisdiction over incinerators."

But both Gerrits men say the incinerator is part of their agricultural operations, and therefore free from local regulations under the Florida Right to Farm Act. The legislation bars local governments from restricting the activity of a "bona fide farm," a term that includes trees and the machines that process them.

The tract is largely exempt from property taxes because of its agricultural use, and Sean Gerrits said his family has burned tree debris in open pits on that site since the 1940s.

"We are working very amicably with the county," Ed Gerrits said. "However, we have a very, very solid position we have an agricultural operation under the Right to Farm Act."

Dixon said the Gerrits can continue to use the incinerator, as long as they are making a "good faith effort" to reach a resolution with the county.

If the Gerrits apply for a rezoning, they will face opposition from neighbors like Kaplan, who said the fumes have aggravated his lung disease and hindered his efforts to sell his 2.5-acre homestead.

County and state officials say the air curtain incinerator Gerrits installed is among the cleanest available. A high-powered fan swirls an "air curtain" above the flames, causing the fire to burn hotter and cleaner. The fire is contained in a three-sided box 30 feet long, 9 feet wide.

"It's one of the cleaner-burning systems, I'll have to give it that," Kaplan said. "But if you put it in people's backyard, no matter how clean it burns, no matter how you run it, it's going to affect people."

Sean Gerrits hopes to reach a resolution with the county. But if the issue becomes too heated, he said he may replace the incinerator with a large wood-chipper, a louder, agricultural machine that does not require any DEP permit.

"Nobody could stop that," he said.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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