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A Times Editorial

Plant plan must be monitored carefully

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000

Circumstances have changed since January, when the Hernando County Commission gave initial approval to a change in the comprehensive land management plan that could lead to Florida Rock Industries building a $100-million cement plant halfway between Brooksville and the Citrus County line.

For one, the state Department of Community Affairs, which is obligated to review the change, raised several concerns, including the proximity of the proposed cement plant to rural residences, as well as to mined-out pits that nearly reach the Floridan Aquifer.

For another, rumors abound that Florida Rock is considering the possibility of buying out competitor Florida Crushed Stone, which already operates a cement plant nearby. If that happened, speculation is that Florida Rock would abandon its quest to build a cement plant just east of U.S. 98 and use the existing Florida Crushed Stone facility.

At its second public hearing on the matter Wednesday, the commission is expected to decide whether to redesignate the land use from mining to industrial for Florida Rock. If that happens, it is not final approval for the cement plant. It only means that the county's compliance with the DCA's concerns will be reviewed, and if the DCA agrees, Florida Rock will be allowed to proceed toward the next steps in the process. That will include seeking the County Commission's approval to change the zoning and acquiring an air-emissions permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection and a possible review from the federal government.

If the commissioners are confident the DCA's concerns have been satisfied, they are obligated to approve the change in the land use plan. Because two cement plants already operate nearby, there can be little argument that the land use is inconsistent.

And because this change is an intermediate step and does not actually convey the commission's final approval for the cement plant's construction, it would be prejudicial for its members to reject the request without substantiated evidence it will be a detriment to the area.

At the same time, however, the commissioners are obligated to be direct in their questioning of Florida Rock representatives regarding the company's possible acquisition of Florida Crushed Stone. If Florida Rock refuses to disclose the status and nature of the negotiations, the commissioners should warn Florida Rock that if it later buys Florida Crushed Stone they will refuse to change the zoning needed to build a new cement plant.

Considering the worry this proposal has generated for many residents, Florida Rock has a responsibility to be forthcoming about its intentions.

Regardless of the commission's decision Wednesday, residents should put pressure on the commissioners to reinstate an air-monitoring program near the towering smokestacks of all the cement plants. The commission should look to the plants' owners to pay for the equipment and personnel needed for that oversight.

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