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Nancy Smith

Department of Agriculture Wants State to Reject Bad Martin County Sewage Amendment

December 2, 2014 - 6:00pm

Martin County, among the Florida counties that suffered most from toxic water pollution in the St. Lucie estuary and Indian River Lagoon in 2013, has rewritten part of its comprehensive plan to encourage not less, but more river pollution, according to a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services analysis.

The department finds that unacceptable.

For that and other reasons embedded in statute, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam's department has recommended the Department of Economic Opportunity reject Martin County's comp plan amendment dealing with onsite treatment and disposal of sewage (proposed policy amendments 10.2A.8 and 10.1C.9).

"... We are perplexed," admitted Ag Senior Management Analyst Stormie Knight in a Dec. 1 letter to Roger Baltz at Martin County Community Development. (See Knight's letter in the attachment below this story.)

A recommendation to reject an amendment in any county's comprehensive plan is rare indeed. In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott -- of a mind to cut regulations that thwart economic development in Florida -- dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, and since then plans reviewed by the DEO mostly have been rubber-stamped.

Knight's letter said of Martin's proposed Chapter 10 rewrite, "The tandem of policies that limit the size of OSTDS (onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems) to less than 2,000 gpd while at the same time prohibiting the extension of central sewer services to rural areas will have the effect of increasing the number of septic systems in a vulnerable region of the state where the Department of Environmental Protection and the state Legislature are pursuing programs to decrease the number of OSTDS and expand central sewer systems."

In other words, Martin decided to swim against the tide of state policy for cleaning up waterways.

Knight's letter won't come as a surprise to Jesse Panuccio. During an interview in February, when asked about the controversial comp plan rewrites in Martin County, the DEO executive director told Sunshine State News, "Oh, yes, we're fully aware of what's going on down there. I've seen the complaints and the litigation, but I just don't think our department needs to get involved at this point. ... We're watching it."

Besides pointing out the danger to state water resources, Knight also says "proposed policy amendments 10.2A.8 and 10.1C.9, in combination, will arbitrarily restrict agricultural land uses and the Right to Farm Act."

The letter claims if the amendment is approved, "... many essential agricultural activities such as providing farm worker housing, restroom and food preparation facilities, and agricultural product processing facilities will be impossible to sustain."

It further states, "In addition, by prohibiting the extension of regional wastewater collection facilities associated with central sewer infrastructure within the secondary urban service area ... Martin County is unreasonably adversely affecting and limiting agricultural operation."

Martin commissioners shredded Chapter 10 of the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan as a result of a directive from former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, who in the last few years has redrafted many of the plan's amendments related to growth.

Residents who oppose the revised Chapter 10 say Hurchalla was looking not to eliminate septic tanks along the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers, but to slow growth. The new Chapter 10 does not address septic tanks leaking sewage into groundwater and/or affecting water quality in the coastal county's waterways. Instead, it calls for the elimination of the kind of septic tanks that have never been installed in the county. They "will effectively end the chance of creating agri-tourism opportunities for our farmers, which require a larger septic system than the proposed 2,000-gallon tank limit," they say.

Opponents of revised Chapter 10, as the Florida Department of Agriculture, shudder at the idea that commissioners want to prohibit the extension of sewer lines in the secondary urban services districts, identified as the places for future county growth.

Commissioners also want to stop sewer lines from Palm Beach County serving Martin County properties at the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, one of few remaining rivers designated "Wild and Scenic." Part of theLoxahatchee has been documented to contain high levels of both coliform and enterococcus bacteria -- or, fecal matter. (See letters from the Loxahatchee River District, attached below, which Martin commissioners largely ignored.)

"Deny sewer lines, stop growth -- that's apparently the idea," says South Martin County resident Audrey Prine. "But it puts us, our water supply and our rivers at great risk. I don't know what our commission was thinking."

Martin commissioners met Tuesday but did not publicly discuss how they will respond to Knight's letter.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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