Pensacola News Journal – December 22, 2020
Less than two weeks after the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners voted to rescind a critical drinking water protection clause in its comprehensive plan, water utilities in the south end of the county are uniting to mount a formal legal challenge at the state level in an attempt to reverse the county’s vote.
Officials with Fairpoint Regional Utility System, which consists of the Holley-Navarre Water System, Midway Water System and South Santa Rosa Utilities, said Tuesday that they would appeal to the state government to block the county’s request to change its comprehensive plan, which commissioners voted to do at a Dec. 10 special meeting.
“The vote by three commissioners to support a single special interest over the public health, safety and welfare of East Milton and south Santa Rosa County is misguided,” the utilities said in a joint press release Tuesday afternoon. “As such, Fairpoint Utilities urges concerned citizens to let the Commissioners know they do not want the protections to be eliminated. Fairpoint Utility will appeal to the State of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to reject this comprehensive plan amendment and if they refuse, Fairpoint Utilities will again appeal before the BCC at the adoption hearing to oppose the change.”
The commissioners’ vote Dec. 10 sends the item to the state for approval. If it’s approved by the DEO, it will come back to the commissioners sometime in January for one final approval.
If the board still accepts the change, Fairpoint officials said they will file a petition with the Department of Administrative Hearings and force the county to “prove, if it can, why it is in the best interests of the citizens to remove protections in the comp plan aimed at protecting the drinking water in the county.”
At the Dec. 10 rezoning meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to repeal language in the comprehensive plan that prohibits the expansion of borrow pits and allows the extraction of natural resources within the East Milton Wellfield Protection Area. The two south end commissioners, Colten Wright and Dave Piech, cast the “nay” votes. Commissioners Sam Parker, Bob Cole and James Calkins voted in favor.
The protected wellfield area was implemented between 2010 and 2013, following several scientific studies commissioned by the county, in order to provide an added degree of protection for the aquifer recharge area.
The repeal, however, was requested by a single private landowner, David Phillips, who uses the borrow pits to provide dirt for construction and dump construction materials and land debris back into the pits. Phillips appeared at the Dec. 10 meeting and said he had never gotten an environmental citation and would not put contaminated materials into the pits.
Still, the repeal was protested by all three water utilities in the south end of the county, as well as environmentalists, real estate agents, biologists and regular citizens, because of the potential for the expanded borrow pits to contaminate the aquifers that supply drinking water for 86,000 residents.
“Fairpoint gets its water from the East Milton wellfield protection area, and approximately 6.5 million gallons a day are pumped from there to the south end of the county for our use down here. We get virtually all of our water from the East Milton wellfield,” said Daryl Lynchard, a HNWS board member. “Anything that could potentially harm our water source, we’re going to be vehemently against.
“We can’t afford for anything to adversely affect the wellfield up there,” he added. “If you contaminate that wellfield, you’ve now got 86,000-plus people in the south end of the county that don’t have any water. Seemingly, from what has been said publicly at the county commission meetings, this repeal is to benefit one gentleman who wants to expand his borrow pits.”
Per Florida statute, the board’s decision to repeal language in its comprehensive plan must be approved by the state. Other municipal governing bodies who want to protest the board’s votes, which is rarely done, have 30 days to do so.
The city of Gulf Breeze voted to support the water utilities’ protest at its Monday night meeting.
“We have a couple of attorneys working on this. We don’t believe the county commissioners acted responsibly, and this is something that benefits an individual and a private party instead of the public,” said Gulf Breeze Mayor Pro Tem Tom Naile. “Basically, this is a protest, because their actions have such a possibility for bad consequences.”
Petition to the state has almost 2,000 signatures
In addition to the large water utilities, everyday citizens are stepping in the ring to fight for clean drinking water as well.
Abbey Rodamaker, a Gulf Breeze resident who has become a clean water activist since discovering an old unregulated landfill on the property where she was going to build her dream home, started a petition the day after the board’s decision to ask the state to deny the board’s request for a change to the comprehensive plan.
The petition had more than 1,800 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
“I was sitting around after that meeting, feeling defeated once again, and I was like, what can I do?” Rodamaker said. “I started a petition. I don’t believe that they (the board) don’t genuinely realize the citizens are against this. If enough people sign this petition, they can’t ignore it.”
Rodamaker said she is deeply concerned about the potential for the aquifers to be contaminated as a result of the board’s decision, and wants board members who voted for the amendment to know that citizens are paying attention.
“It’s such an important issue, it’s important to all of us,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves, and our children and our grandchildren to make this right. Our commissioners were elected by the citizens and they’re paid by the citizens, and it’s time that they start listening to us.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.