Navarre Press – February 16, 2021

Eight words and at least two months of argument that revealed political fissures, real or imagined, between the north and south ends of Santa Rosa County and pitted science against business might have come to an end.

It is anticipated that the county commission will vote 5-0 during a Feb. 25, 2021 meeting to drop a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that would have allowed more or new borrow pit mining above a protected drinking water reservoir that serves tens of thousands of people.

But, will that vote bury the issue?

First, here are those eight edited-out words that started the commotion and the Comprehensive Plan Policy 1.1.D.5 sentence where they were embedded: “Further, resource extraction shall be strictly prohibited within a 500-foot zone around public supply potable water wells and the East Milton Area Wellfield Protection District.”

The strike-thru coupled to a Dec. 10, 2020 commission vote of 3-to-2 to proceed with enacting the amendment conglomerated into a fractious, bitter debate and political or legal maneuvers that aligned local water utilities against the county, borrow pit operators against community activists, and data-driven policymaking against economic growth. Alliances were formed, citizen awareness meetings convened, and letters to the editor written.

Compromise was impossible. The activists argued more borrow pit mining would pollute and possibly, irreversibly contaminate the wellfield aquifer, marooning county residents in a place that lacked enough clean freshwater.

Business interests contended that economic growth was vital, too. What would happen to Santa Rosa County if jobs started disappearing and stores closed, they wondered. And, what about the property rights of the folks who own pits?

The arbiters of the wellfield borrow pit dispute, as it turned out, would be regional and state agencies assigned the statutory duty of reviewing proposed changes to county comprehensive plans, which guide land planning and development.

The evenly worded but unquestionably portentous “technical assistance” reviews provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and, particularly, the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) in January were diplomatic, perhaps even unintended, broadsides directed at county policymaking as it impacted the wellfield protection district and mineral extraction from it.

NWFWMD, doing its job, requested that the county provide more data and analyses so that it can judge the fitness of the push to open the wellfield to additional mining. FDEP, though asking for nothing more from the county commission, noted that “due to the vulnerability of the sand-and-gravel aquifer to contamination, the Department urges the County to continue working with our Northwest District Office and the Northwest Florida Water Management District to ensure that adequate measures remain in place to protect water quality.”

Or, the county might have been alarmed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO) borrow pit amendment letter sent January 20. Citing a Florida statute, FDEO indicated that the law “authorizes other reviewing agencies to provide comments directly to the County” and, in bold type, “If the County receives reviewing agency comments and they are not resolved, these comments could form the basis for a challenge to the amendment after adoption.”

None of the regulatory agencies had the power to veto the proposed change to the Comprehensive Plan, but it was wise for the commission, whatever the individual motivations of its five members, to promise that it will vote to end work on the amendment.

What will the commission due with the respite? If it revisits the issue of expanding borrow pit mining – we are not sure that is a good idea – we hope it will be open to comments and suggestions from the public at the front-end. It has to pay attention to hydrologists, geologists, and biologists, the local utility officials responsible for pumping clean water to households and businesses, and grass-roots community organizations.

In turn, we hope that the public avoids demonizing the commission. Three of its members did move too hastily to open the north end to more borrow pit mining, but it appears that a lesson has been learned.

Some goodwill from both sides of the borrow pit issue, should it rear its ugly head again, will dilute the polarized political atmosphere that has burrowed under the skin of the many Santa Rosans entangled by weeks of fraught accusations and counter-accusations.