The Santa Rosa County Commissioners had an opportunity to make a small step toward amending a sin of the past during their meeting last Thursday.
They chose not to.
They approved building of 16 homes over potentially contaminated water and soil in Gulf Breeze. Water Leaf subdivision is at just the beginning stages of the future building process. The roughly 8.84-acre property borders property that used to be a county dumping ground.
Nearby houses are having structural issues due to the ground settling on top of the piled-up garbage according to neighbors.
Abbey Rodamaker’s story has gotten national attention. She bought her land thinking she would build her family’s forever home. Instead, they found mountains of garbage awaiting them under the surface and water that tested positive for heavy metals. She called this to the attention of, well, everyone. Now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is coming out to test the water, including the wells of neighbors.
But the board’s meeting about Water Leaf felt a bit like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” as commissioners largely pretended not to understand that building homes on top of lead, barium and cadmium contaminated water is probably a bad idea. Most of the board effectively threw their hands up in the air and said polluted or not, we can’t just wait a couple of weeks to find out when FDEP comes to do their tests.
But Commissioner Bob Cole did question the whole thing. He said it seemed immoral to approve Water Leaf without at least checking that the water wasn’t toxic. What a novel concept. He got little support of that assertion from his fellow commissioners, save an agreement to table the issue from Commissioner Dave Piech.
The lawyer on the board, Commissioner Lane Lynchard, went as far as to say it would be illegal to hold the project up temporarily to be sure they weren’t building houses on top of an actual toxic dump. The “Harris Act” strikes again.
In Florida, the Bert J. Harris, Jr., Private Property Rights Protection Act, also known as the “Harris Act,” is a pretty significant piece of law. Like the name suggests, it pretty much says private citizens have a right to their property, a right to the use of their property within the existing laws and right to the financial benefits of that property and its use.
This is an important protection of fundamental rights in our state, but Santa Rosa County has taken it too far. The commission is so scared of violating the “Harris Act” they appear to be nothing more than a rubber stamp on development both big and small.
They are literally too scared of getting sued to stop future children from potentially drinking toxic dump water. That’s not even an exaggeration. If the heavy metals discussed are in the water table next door, it is possible that they have leached into the water table those future 16 houses could be drawing wells from. Just like the existing neighbors.
A bit of context: most of the currently sitting county commissioners have been burnt by the “Harris Act” before, including Cole. The county rejected a project that would have put a borrow pit and potential dumping site over the water supply for half the population, specifically those in the south end.
But the owner pointed out, in court, that they had met all the county’s legal requirements. The project was “grandfathered in” from the new well field protection rules in the county, meaning the borrow pit was legal. They sued and won, leaving the commission once bitten and twice shy.
Add to that the fact developers largely bank roll elections in the county, donating thousands to individual candidates each year at a rate higher than any other industry in Santa Rosa, and you can see how some of the politicians might hesitate.
But as Commissioner Cole so eloquently put it, this is a moral issue, not just a legal one.
It’s probably too late for Abbey Rodamaker to hold her sellers accountable for the putrid pollution she’s now saddled with, thanks in part to the ill-advised decisions of past county commissioners. But it is not too late to stop other future homeowners from finding out they’ve been poisoned by water full of heavy metals.
By approving the development without at least allowing FDEP to check first, the current county commissioners have made themselves no better than those that created the Gulf Breeze dump decades ago. And that’s a shame for the 16 families that may one day call Water Leaf home.