County calls off Florida Rock suit
Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 6:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 12:00 a.m.
Like a wisp of wind on cement dust, Alachua County's 2 1/2-year-old lawsuit against Florida Rock Industries faded away Tuesday.
The Alachua County Commission voted 3-2 to end a breach of contract lawsuit against Florida Rock - a court action that had been filed in the fall of 2000.
The county accused Florida Rock of breaking a 1997 agreement that gave county officials access to Florida Rock's cement plant in Newberry to sample the water, air and soil for possible contaminants. The agreement also said that Florida Rock would pay for the tests.
Florida Rock initially agreed to allow Alachua County to conduct environmental monitoring when the county approved the site plan for the cement plant in 1997.
But after the city of Newberry annexed Florida Rock's property, the Jacksonville-based aggregate materials company refused to comply. Instead, Florida Rock held that the monitoring responsibilities passed to Newberry.
Two courts have upheld Florida Rock's position.
In 2001, Circuit Judge Chester Chance ruled in favor of Florida Rock Industries, stating that "Alachua County is without authority to enforce the terms of the agreement."
On Jan. 14, a panel of judges from the 1st District Court of Appeals essentially agreed.
A majority of the board followed a recommendation by County Attorney Dave Wagner, although he maintains that he believes the judges made a "mistake."
"It's very difficult to get appellate courts to change their opinion," Wagner told the commission. "You are fighting an uphill battle."
The Newberry City Commission on Tuesday also offered an olive branch to end five years of distrust between the two bodies.
"I'm for clean air," Newberry City Commissioner Lois Forte said. "I just want the county and the city to come to some resolution. Let us wake up and try to work out things together instead of trying to work this out in court."
County Commissioners Rodney Long, Lee Pinkoson and Cynthia Chestnut voted not to file another appeal.
"I recommend we not expend any more of the county's money fighting this," Chestnut said.
It's unclear just how much money the county spent defending the lawsuit.
Before the actual lawsuit was filed, the county hired an outside attorney for about $80,000 to try to help mediate a settlement. Wagner said additional attorney costs were borne by his department.
Other costs accrued, however, after the County Commission directed its Environmental Protection Department to conduct fence-line monitoring for airborne particles and certain chemicals. Tests were conducted from September 2001 through June 2002.
EPD Director Chris Bird said the costs associated with those tests - about $9,000 - were negligible because existing or borrowed equipment was used.
"It's not actually a lot of money," Bird said.
Commissioners Penny Wheat and Mike Byerly voted to file an appeal.
"The residents have told us that they want Alachua County to be responsible for air and water quality," Wheat said of Charter Amendment 1, which voters passed in 2000 giving the county authority to set water and air pollution standards that are stricter than the state's.
"We owe it to the residents of our county to take it as far as we can," she said.
While the lawsuit has been disposed of, the future of pollution monitoring at the plant remains in question.
Ralph Moon, an environmental consultant hired by Newberry to monitor the plant, said he recommends eliminating some of the testing, including those for raw materials, soil, surface water and stormwater.
Moon's recommendation is based on several years of data that show Florida Rock has kept its pollution levels below those allowed in its state permit, except for a few sporadic anomalies.
"We really haven't had any one thing that has repeated itself over and over again," Moon said.
But Bird said constant testing is the best way to ensure Florida Rock is following the rules.
"We still have some concerns," Bird said.
The County Commission agreed to direct staff to work with Newberry to develop a mutually beneficial monitoring plan for the future.
Janine Young Sikes can be reached at 337-0327 or sikesj@ gvillesun.com.
Future monitoring likely
FYI: How they voted
After losing twice in court, the Alachua County Commission on Tuesday voted to end its appeals on a lawsuit the county filed in 2000 accusing Florida Rock Industries of breach of contract.
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