by James Coulter
“I’m not against the plant being built, but I’m opposed to where it is being built.”
That was the shared sentiment of the residents who spoke during the public comments of this week’s Lake Wales City Commission meeting to protest the plastic pipe plant proposed for south Lake Wales.
A major manufacturing plant has been planned for a 100-acre site located near Hunt Brothers Road and US Highway 27. As proposed by Advanced Drainage Systems, the plant would produce corrugated pipes from recycled polyethylene plastic pellets, which will be used for stormwater projects.
However, the plant’s proximity to residential neighborhoods, as well as the city’s alleged lack of transparency in approving a special use permit for the plant, has raised concerns about potential heavy traffic and noise, air, and water pollution.
Cassandra Richards, one of the residents who spoke during public comments, raised concerns about potential environmental risks that could lead to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as lung and heart disease and birth defects among the neighboring residents.
She accused city staff of providing zero evidence that the plant is safe to construct near residential areas. Furthermore, she asked why the plant was not considered for construction at the town’s industrial center.
“I do not have a problem with the plant being built, but I have a problem of where that plant is being built,” Richards said. “Y’all do not want the noise downtown. But you want to put it in our neighborhoods so we can hear it all night?”
Cathy Blocker, another resident, likewise raised concerns about pollution, as well as traffic congestion from the trucks traveling in and out of the plant. Furthermore, the fumes from both the plant and trucks would lead to increased air pollution, which would lead to increased risks of health problems.
“This factory is just too close for company in our neighborhood,” she said.
Perhaps the most damning testimony that evening came from resident Bruce Francis, who presented a letter delivered to the city attorney on Feb. 7 from a local law firm. The letter avers that the city has failed to follow the requirements of the local land use development code for the application for the plant.
Francis accused the city of failing to provide an in-depth review of the compatibility of the proposed plant with the surrounding areas. He claimed that no such study has been produced concerning the potential impacts on traffic, the environment, or public safety.
He mentioned a recent fire in Kissimmee at a five-acre high-density plastic plant. The fire required 75 firefighters from six communities to extinguish, and even then, the fire was not put out, but rather allowed to burn out. The fire had burned for a few days and smoldered for a week. That plant was only five acres. What could happen with a 100-acre plant, Francis asked.
“If Highland Park Manor were a zoo, the federal government nor the state government would allow you to even consider that plant without doing a study. If we were zoo animals in a cage, you could not do what you are doing today,” Francis argued.
“My neighbors and I are prepared to put on a full army and legal army to protect our community,” he continued. “You should know that the employees on the city staff, the planning and zoning board, and the city commission are accountable, you are liable if any harm come to any adjacent communities, economically or health-wise.”
More alarming to many residents has been the alleged lack of transparency surrounding the approval of a special use permit for the plant. The permit was set to be approved during a special meeting in January, which was scheduled around the same time as the groundbreaking ceremony for downtown redevelopment. However, that meeting was eventually canceled and postponed.
Catherine Price, who has spoken out against the plant at previous city commission meetings, noted the lack of transparency. She mentioned how many residents have been denied information on the plant as it was allegedly confidential and proprietary, when, she argued, most of the information they were requesting was not.
“More is required for a citizen to cut down a tree than it is to put a major plant in our city,” she said.
Becky Winecoop had also spoken out against the plant at previous meetings, to the point where she jokingly claimed that everyone there should exchange Christmas cards. She noted that more people were against the construction of the plant than in favor of it.
“I only heard two people speak for the plant,” she said. “Everyone else is speaking against it. When do you all start representing the people?”
The one person who spoke in favor of the plant was Skip Alford, President & CEO of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development Council. He had taken a tour of a similar plant in Sebring. He attested that such a plant was safe with no smoke or other pollution emitted and the only noise being that of trucks backing up.
He averred that the plant was a “clean, healthy, wonderful type of production.” Furthermore, the plant would create 60 to 300 jobs and generate nearly $4 million in general revenue for the city.
Some hecklers in the audience remained un-swayed by his claims and rebuffed him.
“Put it in your own backyard,” one person exclaimed.
“You are lying to us,” yelled another.
“I am not lying,” Alford rebutted. “I do not deal with fear. I deal with facts. My job is to bring things here that strengthen the economy for the future, to prevent urban sprawl, to provide a future for the kids.”