Pensacola News Journal – March 5, 2020

The Santa Rosa County land development code rewrite is taking a new approach to borrow pits, changing several ordinances that will have an effect on home building and development throughout the county. 

Borrow pits, which are large holes in the ground so construction crews can “borrow” dirt to add to home sites, have been a controversial topic in Santa Rosa County before. 

Just last year, a highly contested borrow pit off of Ten Mile Road was approved by the county, but then rescinded after residents complained that the county hadn’t followed its own rules regarding proper notification of nearby residents. The borrow pit rezoning had been requested by prominent developer Harrell Downey, who is building the Buffalo Ridge subdivision north of Pace. 

And in October, a pair of Gulf Breeze property owners made local and national headlines when they learned the property they had purchased to build their dream home turned out to be the site of several old borrow pits turned into dumping grounds. 

“Any proposed new or expansion of a pit including natural resource extraction and reclamation of fill requires a rezoning application and ability to meet LDC requirements to change the permitted land use of the property,” said Shawn Ward, the county’s planning and zoning director. “Rezoning applications require advertisement within the local paper, public notification sign placed onsite to alert those passing by and finally mailed letters of notification to property owners with 1,500 feet.  Rezonings require two public hearings per state statue which includes the Zoning Board and Board of County Commissioners.”

The rewritten land development code, which is just in its draft stage and hasn’t been formally adopted yet, seeks three major changes to the existing borrow pit ordinances: 

1. Instead of just one zoning district identified for pits, the districts will be divided up into two parts: Pit 1 and Pit 2. Pits with the Pit 1 designation do not have to be lined and are more for natural land debris, like twigs and sticks. Pits under the Pit 2 label have to be lined and are meant for construction and demolition debris. This eliminates the “one size fits all” approach that the county has previously taken toward pits. 

2. The county will no longer require handwritten signatures from homeowners who live within 1,000 feet of the proposed pit. The existing signature rule allows developers to build pits in areas that are within 1,000 feet of a proposed pit, so long as the residents living within 1,000 feet of the pit sign their names saying they aren’t in opposition to it. Under the new LDC, the signature rule has been eliminated. Residents can still show up to public meetings and voice their opposition or support for a proposed rezoning, as they have in the past. 

3. The entrance/exit to a proposed pit cannot be within 1,000 feet of a residence. The old LDC allowed exceptions if homeowners within the 1,000-foot threshold provided written signatures saying they did not oppose the pit. The new LDC does not allow for signatures, but simultaneously bans all pits within 1,000 feet of homes outright. 

Abbey Rodamaker, who owns the Gulf Breeze dumping ground property along with her husband, Jeff, said she felt the new ordinances were a good path forward, but don’t do much to address existing and past issues with borrow pits. 

She pointed to two borrow pits and landfills near a Holley Navarre drinking well, which she said need to be further investigated for possible groundwater contamination.  

“The pit designation is only going to be for new properties that are going to be seeking a pit zoning designation,” Rodamaker said. “It doesn’t go back and retroactively fix problems that are happening with existing borrow pits in Santa Rosa County.”

Rodamaker said she didn’t know what borrow pits were just a year ago, but has since learned their importance in the health of the land and the citizens who rely on land to build, drink or grow food. 

“It’s a health hazard, and it’s an informed decision that people need to be able to make whether or not they want their family to be living next to those types of properties,” she said.

David Phillips, a lifelong resident of Santa Rosa County and owner of contracting and development company Three Trade Consultants Inc., said he had looked over the updated ordinance and thought it generally looked good.

Phillips said he thought the 1,000-foot setback should be a little bit less, but he agreed with most of the changes.

“Pits have gotten a bad name, because when you say ‘pit’ people immediately think about the stinking C&D (Construction and Development) pits, the landfills, and those are totally different,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing wrong with borrow pits. In development work, you have to have dirt and you have to have a debris facility to put debris in. A borrow pit is no different than a holding pond.”  

Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.