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County commissioners rule in favor of Bell Mine application

By MELISSA BILL - | Oct 7, 2020


On Sept. 16, Lee County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve an application by representatives for Bell Mine, presently a dirt mine located on S.R. 82. The ruling will now allow the mine owners to sell the limerock it digs up in its search for dirt.

Bell mine owners submitted an application to amend its existing Industrial Planned Development zoning to acquire a one-time, 5-year extension, plus amend the conditions of approval from its 2004 IPD zoning, which details what it can do with the limerock dug from its 40-foot deep pits.

After some debate, the BOCC’s final decision overturned an original county ruling that prevented limerock taken from a dirt mining pit operation to be sold. The limerock could, however, be excavated and processed.

Criticism of the decision was swift.

According to Julianne Thomas, Senior Environmental Planning Specialist at Conservancy of Southwest Florida, in the end, commissioners went against an earlier ruling by the Hearing Examiner.

“They voted to approve despite their own county staff recommending that the application be denied and despite prior decisions by the Hearing Examiner that the mine should be a fill dirt mine only, and despite the applicant having bypassed the usual review and comment process for such requests,” Thomas said.

Thomas says that the move by commissioners also ignored the promises made to the public regarding public participation during the removal of Map 14 from the comprehensive plan.

“The public — of which we were a part — expressed extreme distress and concern that there would not be adequate chance for full public involvement. The public was repeatedly assured time and time again that Section 12 would be followed and there were additional public meetings added to Section 12 in order to assure the public would be informed and have an opportunity to participate,” Thomas said.

County officials said the approval was proper and in accordance with regulations.

According to Michael Jacob, Deputy County Attorney, the Bell Road Mine Amendment application was filed under Chapter 12 of the Land Development Code — a provision adopted by the board in 2010.

“Section 12-109 specifically provides a mechanism for certain previously approved mines (approved prior to September 9, 2008) to amend their existing zoning approvals without going through the process for rezoning to a Mine Excavation Planned Development (MEPD). Section 12-109(e) permits a property owner to request a one-time extension of their development approvals and, in so doing, the applicant may request modification of the Master Concept Plan and conditions of zoning approval in order to bring the proposed mining operation into greater conformance with current existing regulations,” Jacob said via email.

The proposed amendments were consistent with the types of amendments authorized under the LDC, he said.

“Any assertion that the BoCC transformed the Bell Road mine from a fill dirt mine into a lime rock mine blindly ignores the facts concerning the approvals already acquired by the property owner between 1990 and 2004. The Bell Road mine has been in various stages of mining operation since 1990,” Jacob said. “The Excavation, mining use has been a part of the County’s Zoning Regulations and Land Development Code since at least 1986 and continues through today.”

Under the LDC, excavation, mining use covers stripping, grading or removal by any process of natural minerals or deposits, including but not limited to fill dirt or other extractive materials, from their natural state and location.

“During the 2004 rezoning application process, the property owner indicated that the primary purpose of the mine was to remove the fill dirt from the mine and sell it. As part of that purpose, the mine would excavate the lime rock that was on site, process it, and store,” Jacob said. “Stated another way, the property owner was authorized to excavate the site to 40′ depth, including the removal of rock, soil, and fill dirt, process the material and haul it off site; however, the property owner could not haul the rock off site for commercial purposes, only the fill dirt could be sold.”

Thomas from the Conservancy and other opponents disagree with the reasons surrounding the Bell Mine ruling.

“Bell Mine was approved with no blasting as a fill dirt mine. The reason it was never on Map 14, before Map 14 was deleted, is because Map 14 was for lime rock mines. Lime rock mines and fill dirt mines are different things. On September 16, the commissioners transformed a fill dirt mine into a lime rock mine bypassing all lime rock mine standards in Section 12 of their Land Development Code. This was inappropriate and alarming for what it means in terms of how the commissioners view their commitments to the public and public participation,” Thomas stated.

According to Attorney Jacob, the Bell Road mine amendment was approved pursuant to Chapter 12, which will unlikely ever be used again as there are no other mines in Lee County approved prior to September 9, 2008, that would qualify for an amendment under 12-109.

“Unfortunately, many members of the public and special interest groups like the Conservancy, do not fully understand the rezoning process and the limitations on local governments in that process,” Jacob said.

In its ruling, the county found that Bell’s previously approved rezoning applications were found to be compatible with surrounding property owners, the environment, and in compliance with the Lee Plan.