by James Coulter
We are not opposed to the plant being built. We are opposed to where it is being built. That shared sentiment over a proposed manufacturing plant was expressed by many Lake Wales residents at a recent city commission meeting on Tuesday.
A 100-acre site located along Hunt Brothers Road near US Highway 27 is currently being considered for a major manufacturing plant. The facility is expected to utilize polyethylene plastic pellets to make plastic pipes often used in stormwater projects.
The proposed plant is expected to utilize both the roadway and train tracks for the transportation of the raw material. Due to its proximity to residential areas, it has raised concerns over potential air, water, and noise pollution, as well as traffic and safety for pedestrians and local children.
The Lake Wales Planning and Zoning Board is considering approving a special use permit, which will allow the proposed plant to be constructed within the designated zoning area. The special use permit had been planned to be approved at previous special meetings, all of which have been canceled and postponed.
One such meeting had been planned for a date in January, coincidentally around the same time as a groundbreaking ceremony for the downtown area revitalization project. Such timing has raised suspicions among concerned residents about the alleged lack of transparency surrounding the project.
Cassandra Richards, a resident who lives near the proposed site, even threatened to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of her neighbors. She claimed the city was prioritizing profit over people, reminding them of the Biblical principle that “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Richards mentioned several other nationwide incidents involving plant explosions and train derailments that have led to environmental catastrophes for the surrounding residents. She does not want anything similar to happen in her backyard, and she warned the city commissioners that they would be held accountable if they approved the special use permit.
“I keep standing because I am concerned,” she said. ” When it [catastrophe] happens, it is too late, and you will be held accountable. Someone will be held accountable. I am pushing for a class action lawsuit because you have so many people telling you we don’t want it out there. Is it enough to risk human or animal life?”
Another resident, Mary Beth Salisbury, mentioned how nearly 1,000 train derailments happen every year across the country. She does not wish something to happen in that area, especially since it is within spitting distance of several local neighborhoods including Whispering Ridge.
“I am not against the plant, we are against the location,” she said. “There are many shovel-ready sites, but they have not been considered…In conclusion, as you are the artists of how Lake Wales will look in 50 years, look at what you are doing.”
Becky Winecoop, another resident who had spoken at previous city commission meetings, asked why the industrial park had not been considered for the plant’s location, as it has the space and utilities necessary for such a proposed facility.
“I spoke to one of the workers [of a Sebring plant], and he could not believe there will be a plant that large next to dense housing,” she said. “There are so many things that can go wrong. The problems that will arise will be on you.”
Catherine Price, who had also spoken at previous city commission meetings on the subject, reminded the city commissioners that this change will be permanent, and once it is made, they will be obliged to move forward with the project whether or not they have second thoughts.
She also mentioned how the people from Advanced Drainage Systems, which had proposed the project, has met with the city countless times over the proposed plant, but not once had they approached the citizens, especially the residents living nearby.
“You owe them nothing,” she said. “But once we change this zoning, we owe them something. We made the step toward making this facility built here.”
Skip Alford, President & CEO of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development Council, was the only person during public comments to speak in defense of the plant. He had previously taken a tour of a similar plant in Sebring, and he assures people that his experiences there proved that the proposed plant would be safe.
The proposed plant would not create noise or air pollution. Contrary to certain signs against the plant, the facility would not have smoke stacks. He assures people that the other things the plant would bring are jobs and economic development.
As for why the plant has not been considered for the industrial park, he answered that the park only has four available plots, and they are far too small to contain the proposed plant.
“The saddest thing in any town is to dilute the town with lies and hyperbole,” he said. “I hate that lies and untruths have been spread. Just provide the facts to people.”