Hernando Commissioners delay decision on brownfield request

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Hernando Commissioners delay decision on brownfield request

Michael Goldstein, Esq. of Goldstein Environmental Law Firm

The Hernando County Commission voted unanimously to kick the can down the road, but the problem is no one knows for sure just what is in the can.

Faced with either approving a request from a developer for the brownfield designation or denying the request for a brownfield designation, County Commissioners decided to continue, or delay, its final decision until the Dec. 5 meeting. A brownfield is land whose use may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of polluted or hazardous waste.

The brownfield site in question is at the 104-unit Hammock Ridge low- income apartment complex under construction at 8274 Omaha Circle in Spring Hill.

The decision to kick the can down the road came at the Oct. 24 public hearing, the second hearing on this controversy after an earlier meeting where the developers were asked to provide evidence of "perceived" contamination at the site in order to receive a brownfield designation which would give developers large financial incentives including tax credits in their clean-up and rehabilitation of the site.

The brownfield designation comes out of a murky Florida law which requires the local governing body to issue such designation "based on the perceived contamination from historical and unregulated dumping. " The word "perceived" appears to be the bogeyman in the law, as the law does not require actual evidence of contamination or pollution, only a very vaguely construed "perceived" contamination which is a very low and a very easy threshold to meet.

The developers, the Housing Trust Group of Coconut Grove in Miami, brought in the heavy hitter from the Goldstein Environmental Law firm of Miami for this second public hearing. Michael Goldstein is the Babe Ruth of environmental lawyers in Florida as well as one of the tops in his field nationally. Goldstein practices exclusively in environmental law to help coordinate federal, state and local approval of issues such as brownfield sites. Goldstein is the founding chairman of the Florida Brownfields Association which focuses on the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields in the state. Ironically, Goldstein is also the benefactor of the Goldstein Brownfields Foundation dedicated to empowering economically and disadvantaged individuals and communities with resources to restore polluted lands, to revitalizing neighborhoods, and to protecting public health.

Goldstein himself came to this second public hearing to seek the Hernando County Commission approval, a request based on the word "perception'" of contamination much more so than based on any supporting evidence that the Hammock Ridge site is---or is not---- contaminated. "No actual contamination has been determined,'' Goldstein told the Commission and the public at the hearing. "The property is safe to build on. It is a risk but we are confident that the risk is doable."

The Hernando County attorney stated that the developers, through Goldstein, met the criteria required by the state statute and that the Commission has no choice but to approve or to disapprove the brownfield designation. Commissioners, however, came up with a third option.

"We cannot stop this train," said commissioner Wayne Dukes." When a law says 'you shall,' you do it or you pay through the nose later (in a lawsuit).

"Legally, there is no basis for denial," he continued. "We can ask for more information...more answers, but it is a permitted use.

"This is not a fight I want us to fight," Dukes concluded. "The upside is we are going to have more places to live for people in Hernando County."

But the County Commission decided to punt or to kick the can down the road until the Dec. 5 meeting, but only after several passionate presentations by citizens decrying the brownfield statue as "one written by developers' lobbyists for the benefit of developers."

One comment cited the state law itself as the problem. "It is a terrible piece of legislation," said Shirley Miketinac. "It is a money grab. The law needs to be changed. What a farce. More stinks in this law than the garbage!" she opined. "Let's hope that this situation will be the catalyst to change this law."

Another public commenter, Pat Miketinac, added that the commission asked for more facts at the first public hearing, but once again all it received at this second hearing was more glowing generalities and no facts or analysis of pollution or contamination at the site were presented at this, the second public hearing.

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