tampabay.com

A plea and a protest for pit plan

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published June 22, 2007


It was nearly 7 o'clock on a fine spring evening and roughly 15 men and women were waiting in a chilly Hillsborough County hearing chamber.

They had picketed at the county administrative building around noon, carrying hand-lettered signs:

STOP THE RUIN OF BALM COMMUNITY

NO MORE DIRT PITS IN BALM

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Now, the signs leaned against a wall. The residents sat silent. The hearing master, Harold Youmans, was five hours behind schedule.

Youmans spoke with a patient, avuncular spirit, neither brusque nor hurried. He never apologized for the delay.

Finally, as the shadows lengthened outside, it was the Balm residents' turn.

First, Shelley Lakes Mine owner Reggie Joyner took the podium to explain his request to excavate another 61 acres of land.

Tom Hiznay, the case reviewer for Joyner's application, had attached 18 conditions to Joyner's proposal.

Because there are already so many borrow pits in the area, Hiznay suggested limiting the amount of dirt to be extracted to 5.75-million tons, restricting the trucking routes, and curtailing operating hours to 7 a.m. through 5 p.m. on weekdays, among other things.

Joyner protested some of Hiznay's suggestions.

"It gives everybody else an unfair advantage, to be closed on Saturday, " he said.

He said that without the expansion, his current mining operations will soon be depleted.

"I have 11 employees counting on me today, " he said. "If I fail them, they're going to be out of a job by fall."

Then it was time for the 15 Balm residents to speak.

One by one, they stood before the podium and talked about the noise of mining equipment long after business hours, about dirt in the air, about trucks barreling down rural roads in the tiny community south of Riverview.

Marcella O'Steen, president of the Balm Civic Association, read a clause from the Hillsborough County Land Development Code, stating that the county should consider "cumulative impact of all permitted ... land excavations within 1 mile" when approving a new excavation.

That clause was her lifeline, she had said before the meeting. She was hanging everything on those two words: "cumulative impact."

She told Youmans about her neighbor, Susie Payne, who had counted 319 dump trucks rolling past her front door in one hour.

She did the math for him: All the borrow pits in Balm, taken together, are permitted to yield 62-million tons of dirt.

She talked about cars and houses coated in dust, about wells going dry.

When she and the rest of the residents were done, Youmans spoke up.

"I'm going to accept the fact that as Interstate 275 is expanded, someone's going to need a million tons of dirt, " he said.

Where would the dirt come from? he asked. Town 'N Country? South Tampa?

No, he said. From Balm.

"You're absolutely right about being concerned about the cumulative impact, " he said. "But other people might be right, too."

Youmans continued: "How far do we want to move those million trucks? And who drives those trucks? You think about it. College graduates with Ph.D.s? No. High school graduates and high school dropouts. And they're earning big bucks, and they're not on welfare. That's part of the cumulative impact, too."

He asked, "Do we need more lanes on (Interstate) 275? Do we need these projects? And if we need them, where is the dirt going to come from?"

Then he said, "Thank you for staying today."

The meeting ended. The residents packed up their signs and headed home.

Youmans will render a decision in three weeks.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.