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A smelly, smokey neighbor shuts down

Owners of a mulch site in Port Tampa plagued by dust, fire and vermin said it's closing. Apartments may rise in its place.

By RON MATUS
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2002


PORT TAMPA -- Neighbors call it "The Dust Bowl." But sometimes dust isn't the worst of it.

At times, the mountainous heaps of mulch behind the Rembrandt apartment complex off Lois Avenue smell like a truckload of rotten eggs, or the slime at the bottom of a trash bin.

Sometimes, mulch smolders for days. Sometimes, it catches fire.

Most recently, neighbors complained the 14-acre site had become a breeding ground for rats and snakes.

So for them, good news: The Dust Bowl may have finally bitten the dust.

Tampa Bay Organics, the company that has run the much-maligned site since 1999, said last week it's calling it quits.

A modest apartment complex may rise from its ashes.

"I'm glad they're gone," said Kenneth Foote, a nearby resident. "Nothing against the company. It just wasn't the place for it."

Cornerstone Development Group, a Coral Gables company that builds apartments statewide, wants the land rezoned so it can build a 288-unit complex. City Council expects to address the issue Thursday. Greg Kaknes, president of Tampa Bay Organics, said the company just couldn't make the economics work. Constant complaints from residents and a lawsuit filed by Hillsborough County environmental officials probably didn't help.

For years, the site has been used to turn pallets, tree trimmings and other wood waste into mulch for landscapers.

Environmentally, it made sense.

But while thousands of dump truck loads of waste went in, the finished product didn't come out as fast.

The result: Mountains of decomposing wood chips. Neighbors said the peaks were taller than the two-story complex next door.

As the wood decayed, dust formed. And when winds blew off Tampa Bay, the dust covered everything.

"The car, the screen porch," said Foote, who lives 100 yards away.

"It filled the pool," said Foote's wife, Ruth.

One resident said she was forced to buy a clothes dryer after one too many laundry loads got smudged on the line.

At night, the stuff drifted past the street lights, like dirty snow.

But that's not all.

As the compost decomposed, it produced two things below the surface: a smelly gas and lots of heat.

The gas was unleashed when bulldozers rearranged the heaps.

The heat sparked fires.

Often the site just smoldered, like a muck fire in a swamp.

In 1997, a series of fires produced so much smoke health officials told residents with respiratory problems to stay inside. Another time, Rembrandt residents were evacuated.

With every fire came ash -- and more stuff for winds to blow.

Tampa Bay Organics bought the land for $700,000 and promised residents it would make things right.

It installed sprinklers to suppress dust. It promised to clean dirty pools.

But the problems didn't go away.

In 2000 and 2001, nuisance complaints continued to be called in by the dozens.

Many came from Robinson High School. Many came from longtime residents who remembered when the land was woods, not a modern-day nuisance.

In December 2001, the City of Tampa Housing Authority weighed in with a new complaint: vermin.

Jerome Ryans, the authority executive director, called the facility a "health hazard" to families in Rembrandt. He told county environmental officials it should be closed.

By then, Tampa Bay Organics was winding down.

"When we bought it, it was too far gone," said Kaknes, who lives in Massachusetts. "There was a monumental amount of material left on the site that was in various forms of decay."

And there just wasn't an easy way to get rid of it, he said.

Kaknes said the shut-down had nothing to do with complaints or with a lawsuit the county filed in circuit court in June 2001. The suit is still pending.

The market just wasn't there, he said. Too many competitors.

"That's what forced our hand," he said.

Kaknes said his company is leaving the site in better shape than when it took over. He said it did the city a "favor."

"We were using our money to clean it up," he said. "And we didn't make the mess."

Neighbors gave Tampa Bay Organics credit for trying. Some said things did get better, just not good enough.

They weren't the only ones happy to see it go.

Rick Tschantz, general counsel for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, called the site a "constant, chronic problem."

"We kind of wanted them out of business," he said.

It's not clear how much material remains. Or how soon it will go.

Kaknes said the company is still selling some mulch, and giving some away.

But last week, the company's phone number was out of service and the gate was locked. Nobody appeared to be on site.

How long before the lot is cleared may depend on how soon the land gets rezoned.

Linda Pearson, a Tampa land planner who represents Cornerstone, said if the city gives its okay, construction could begin next summer, with apartments for rent by 2004.

Cornerstone has built other complexes in the Tampa area, including Cypress Trace in Brandon and Clipper Cove on Interbay Boulevard, just a stone's throw from the Organics site.

The proposed complex -- tentatively named Clipper Bay -- will have one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. It will cater to singles and young couples, said Pearson, a vice president at Engelhardt Hammer & Associates.

The rents: Around $600 for one bedroom, $700 for two bedroom and $800 for three bedroom.

For Port Tampa, the proposal comes amidst a mini-boom in development.

One developer plans to build 24 Victorian homes at Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue. Another wants to build 87 homes and townhomes a quarter mile away.

Neighbors had a mixed reaction.

Rosa Sellers used to rinse black dust off her windowsills and once came home to a roof gray from ashes. Now she worries a new apartment complex will increase property values, and in turn her taxes. She also wondered how bad traffic will get.

"It will be different problems," she said.

Across the street, though, the Footes were looking forward to a clean pool.

Anything, Kenneth Foote said, is better than The Dust Bowl.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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