by James Coulter
City Commissioners only intended to approve an ordinance correcting a “scrivener’s error” in the city’s code, but their decision only further inflamed an ongoing controversy surrounding a proposed plastic plant.
During their regular meeting on Tuesday evening, Lake Wales City Commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance amending the city code, changing the zoning designation for heavy manufacturing from “special exemption use permit” to “permitted.”
The ordinance was passed to amend a “scrivener’s error” in a previous ordinance approved last year by both the planning and zoning board and city commission that was initially intended to amend the zoning designation.
However, the city commission’s decision contradicted that of the planning and zoning board, which, at their meeting on March 28, voted 4 to 1 to keep the special exception use permit requirement, and thus, according to the ordinance’s memo, “recommending denial of the correction to the clerical error.”
As reported by the Lake Wales News: “The ‘corrective’ action would allow city planning staff to remove reviews of ‘special exceptions’ and make future zoning changes without the involvement of either the volunteer zoning board or the city commission.”
The change to city code has proven quite controversial, as residents fear it will more easily fast-track the approval of a plastic plant proposed near Hunts Brothers Road and US Highway 27.
Proposed by Advanced Drainage Systems, the major manufacturing plant would occupy a nearly 100-acre site east of South 11th Street and north of Hunt Brothers Road. The plant would be used to recycle plastic pellets into the material for plastic pipes often used in stormwater projects.
Advocates for the proposed plant insist it will generate economic development and create jobs; however, opponents fear its proximity to residential areas would increase the risk of air and noise pollution and increase traffic congestion.
City Commissioners who voted in approval of the ordinance averred that their decision was only to make a much-needed correction in the city’s code and not approve the proposed plant. The decision on whether to approve the plant itself would be raised at their next meeting.
Regardless, during the meeting’s public comments, and the public comments section for the ordinance, countless city residents voiced their opinions either in favor of or in opposition to the proposed plant.
Charlene Bennett spoke out against the ordinance. She was on the planning and zoning board when the change to the city code was originally approved in March 2022. She admits that she and the other board members were unaware of what the change would entail.
“None of us knew what we were voting for,” she said. “My vote was negligent. I was wrong, and I regret it.”
Bennett averred that a special exemption permit would safeguard residents against potential risks and abuses posed by large-scale projects like the proposed plastic plant. Only through the current process would the city be able to make better decisions about implementing and approving such proposals, she said.
“Nobody is hurt by a public hearing,” she said.
Blair Updike, who also spoke out against the proposed plant, raised concerns about the property if the plant were to shut down. She feared that a new plant with far more hazardous material could easily move in and take its place.
“I appreciate the effort to ensure this is a safe facility, but it is not something you should have to do because there is a process in place where you can have it approved without doing it yourself,” she said.
Bruce Francis warned that making the change to the city code would only open a “Pandora’s box” without any way of knowing what would spring forth from it. Moreover, he did not believe the new plant would create jobs; rather, it would draw jobs from other plants to the city.
“I know if I were putting in a plant, I would not bring in novices,” he argued. “These jobs being created, are they jobs being created?”
The City Commissioners who voted in favor of approving the ordinance averred that their decision that evening was not about approving the proposed plant, but rather about making a needed correction to the city’s code.
Commissioner Daniel Williams understood the concerns of the public, yet he felt the change was the right decision, as it would more easily permit the city to approve projects that would help draw in potential employers.
“When I look at the community directly, we owe the city opportunities that will allow income that will provide for their family that is feasible and respectable,” he said. “Even if this [proposal] passes, we still have to do through the planning process.”
Commissioner Terry Howell insisted that her decision was solely about changing the scrivener’s error and not about approving the proposed plant.
“I am sorry everyone thought this was the time to talk about the plant,” she said. “I thought it was about changing the error. It is still an error, and it needs to be change.”