by James Coulter
Toxic chemicals. Fire hazards. Heavy traffic. Loud noises. Many of these concerns were raised by Lake Wales residents over a proposed plastic pipe plant planned for a 100-acre site near Hunts Brothers Road and 11th Street.
During the recent city commission meeting on Tuesday evening, city residents voiced their concerns over the proposed plant, its potential safety and health hazards, and the alleged lack of transparency on behalf of the city to approve it.
As reported by the Lake Wales News, the plant will produce plastic pipes, often used for stormwater projects, made from recycled plastic pellets. When completed, it is expected to employ 65 workers during its primary shift.
The plant will require a special exception use permit, as its finished pipes will be stored outdoors, Lake Wales News reported. Due to its proximity to residential properties, both existing and proposed, many residents have raised concerns about its construction.
Cassandra Richards, a resident who lives near the proposed site, mentioned how many sick and elderly residents live within that area. The noise and pollutants that would emanate from the plant would only aggravate their already poor health, she said. Moreover, the children that live in that area will no longer be able to play outside near the streets due to the constant stream of traffic coming in and out of the plant.
“There are elderly and sick people out there,” she said. “This is not a third-world country where you can put whatever you want. Do it properly. Put it somewhere where it is not near a residential area.”
Mary Beth Salisbury, another resident, had lived in Lake Wales for five years. She moved from a county that went through the same “unbridled growth” that Lake Wales will soon be facing due to economic development spurred on by projects such as the proposed plant. Her former county made a lot of “bad decisions” that she fears the city will only be repeating.
“You elected officials are in control of the city’s destiny,” she implored commissioners. “You need to make a plan. Make them [outside companies] meet your standards. Don’t do their standards. Don’t sit back. Please don’t do what my previous county allowed to happen. They allowed anything to go in anywhere at the very beginning because it brought in more money and it brought more jobs…I heard you say you want to keep people here. Make sure they are the jobs you want them to have.”
Perhaps more egregious than the potential health and safety hazards from the proposed plant has been the rather expedient and allegedly less than transparent process that the city has undertaken to approve the proposal.
Originally, a special session of the Planning and Zoning Board meeting to approve the special permit for the plant was to be hosted at 5:30 pm on Jan. 12, around the same time as the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Park Avenue Market redesign. However, that board meeting was canceled and postponed until Feb. 8, only for that meeting to be likewise canceled and re-scheduled.
Many of the city commissioners had allegedly not known about the plastic pipe plant proposal until reading about it in a news article in the Lake Wales News published earlier that January, one resident, Catherine Price, claimed during her public comments at the Feb. 7 city commission meeting. The proposal had allegedly been discussed by the city staff and developers as early as 2021, according to an e-mail correspondence that one resident, Price likewise averred.
During her comments at the most recent meeting, she raised concerns about potential fire hazards. She mentioned the recent plant fire in Kissimmee, which took 75 firefighters to combat, and which was burning so hot that the fire was left until it eventually burned out. A similar fire could arise from the proposed plant, she said, and the lack of transparency surrounding the proposal is cause for concern.
“The City of Lake Wales has continued to refuse to provide information to us about this plant,” she said. “A great deal of information in the negotiation between companies and the economic development councils is protected and can be seen as confidential…While this may work for the economic development councils and the companies that are negotiating, it does not work well for the people living next to a facility like that.”
This concern over the alleged lack of transparency was shared by another resident, Juanita. While she was currently forming her own opinion about the plant, she knows that other people remained concerned and fearful, mostly due to the lack of information surrounding the proposed plant. Their fears could be placated if the city were to take its time and provide studies about its potential hazards before making a final decision, she asserted.
“Asking questions is not speaking lies. Asking questions is simply asking questions. When told that there is no need for concern, people want more than to be told not to worry, and they want more than to rely on an anecdotal visit to the plant. They want transparency and facts,” she said. “The bottom line is that if you don’t want people to be suspicious, then don’t act suspicious.”
The next Planning and Zoning Board Meeting is scheduled for Tues., Feb. 28 at 5:30 P.M. at Lake Wales City Hall, located at 201 Central Avenue W., Lake Wales FL, 33859.