The Manatee County Commission engaged in a "grossly illegal process" when it gave Mosaic Phosphate approval to strip-mine 2,000 acres within the Peace River watershed, a pair of lawsuits filed today by Earthjustice contends.
Earthjustice is representing local citizens John Rehill, John Korvick, Mary Sheppard, and the environmental groups Sierra Club and Manasota-88. The lawsuits -- filed against Manatee County and Mosaic Phosphate -- provide proof that citizens were shut out of the county commission's deliberations about the so-called Altman Tract mine, while Mosaic was favored with private meetings, conference calls, and specially-arranged tours with newly-elected commissioners Larry Bustle and John Chappie. Bustle and Chappie provided the swing votes to approve the company's mine.
Most troubling, Mosaic and Manatee County also improperly engaged in so-called "contract zoning." In exchange for the county commission's approval to mine, Mosaic offered to build on its property a 7,000 square-foot fire station, a community park with a baseball field, soccer field, 19-acre lake, boat ramp and dock, restroom facilities, picnic areas, a parking area, a complete irrigation system for landscaping and sports fields, and funding not to exceed $87,000 per year for three years (plus $58,000 start up costs the first year) for operating and maintenance expenses. The company also offered to work with the county on providing or contributing to improvements to an environmental education center including up to $75,000 in funding.
"Simply put," the lawsuit states, "a fire station, a park, an environmental education center and a pot of money has nothing to do with the 'merits' of whether the Altman Tract, with its high quality, pristine wetlands and neighboring residential neighborhood, should be rezoned from agricultural (and all the other uses available within that zoning category) to open-pit phosphate strip mining.
"The Commission's approval of Mosaic' rezoning request, its DRI request, its mining plan, and its operating permit in exchange for bargaining for consideration, violates the essential requirements of the law, because if zoning is allowed to depend upon how much money an applicant is willing to spend, then there is no zoning."
"If allowed, this mine will have devastating impacts on the Peace River watershed," said Sandra Ripberger, Conservation Chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club Group. "When government contemplates giving away public natural resources for private profit, the public wants a process that is transparent and thoughtful. Instead, it has suffered the worst kind of strong-arm corporate politics."
The Manatee County Commission originally turned down the land-use changes the company sought for its strip mine in September 2008 despite veiled threats of a "takings" lawsuit by Mosaic. However, Mosaic tried again with the new commission, threatened to sue for more than $600 million unless it got its local permits, and this time got the County Commission to reconsider the mine and approve it in a series of votes in December 2008 and January and February 2009.
The public wasn't told about the extensive behind-the-scenes deal-making that stacked the deck in favor of Mosaic. Earthjustice's lawsuit shows that the Manatee County Commission violated its own rules for impartiality, unlawfully held numerous private conversations and meetings with Mosaic while refusing to give the same information to citizens, gave approval when it didn't have jurisdiction to do so, and improperly reversed itself when it approved the mine.
"What was lost in this process was due consideration for the property rights of the adjacent landowners, such as Plaintiffs Rehill and Korvick, and the citizens' right to have their local government provide a level playing field to both applicants and opponents in the course of deciding land use disputes," the lawsuit says. "That level playing field did not exist here and Plaintiffs' due process rights were violated as a result."
The lawsuit shows that the Manatee County Attorney's Office and members of the Manatee County Commission:
- Told citizens who questioned the mine that they could not discuss the permit because of pending legal action by Mosaic, but then held a series of meetings and phone calls with Mosaic to discuss details.
- Improperly approved a mining plan and operating permit before the land had the required rezoning from agriculture to mining.
- Improperly held a re-vote to reverse the commission's earlier denial of Mosaic's mine. Commission procedures say a motion to reconsider must be called for by a commissioner who was on the prevailing side of the original vote, and say a motion to reconsider has to be made within 30 days after the original vote. The two commissioners who called for the new vote on the Mosaic mine were not on the prevailing side, and they made the motion to reconsider three months after the original vote.
Public records obtained in the case reveal that:
- Between September 30, 2008 (when Mosaic threatened to sue) and December 11, 2008 (when the mine approval was placed on the County Commission agenda) the County Attorney's office had at least five conference calls and at least two meetings with Mosaic attorneys on the subject of the Altman Tract and engaged in extensive e-mail traffic.
- On October 3, 2008, two county attorneys accompanied both John Chappie and Larry Bustle to the office of Mosaic's local lawyer's for Mosaic briefings. Chappie and Bustle are described by county attorneys in the record of these briefings as "Comm-Elect Chappie," "Commissioner Chappie," and "Comm-Elect Bustle," although neither man had yet been elected.
- At no time during this time period were members of the environmental community opposed to the strip mine allowed to have contacts with either the commissioners or members of the County Attorney's office on issues related to the Altman Tract.
"The process that transpired in Manatee County smells," said Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer. "Citizens deserve better. Through this lawsuit, we are seeking simple justice."
Although Mosaic has its local approvals to mine, it does not have its required federal permits to do so. On October 5, 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, citing public interest concerns, suspended the company's federal permit to mine the Altman Tract in the Peace River watershed.