MCBOCC will consider an application for a sand mine in Orange Springs

The project threatens nearby natural resources and was once the site of Fort Russell, a Seminole Indian War structure.

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Posted December 16, 2022 | By Rosemarie Dowell
Photos by Alan Youngblood, Special to the Gazette

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect staff approval of the sand mind project following an amended application.

Dozens of residents in the tiny enclave of Orange Springs say a proposed sand mine, if approved, will forever ruin their community’s tranquil character, destroy crucial wildlife habitat and taint adjacent Orange Creek and nearby critical natural water resources.

The Marion County Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a request by MG Cattle Company, LLC., for a Special Use Permit to allow mass grading for natural resource extraction on roughly 200 acres on the north side of East County Road 318, a main thoroughfare, two miles west of County Road 315.

The proposed project, located on a former peanut farm, would include the removal of up to 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt with dump trucks rolling in and out of the property six days a week. The property directly abuts Orange Creek, which feeds into the Ocklawaha River.

“We know exactly what we stand to lose if the mine is approved,” said Victoria Key, a founder of the “Stop the Orange Springs Sand Mine” movement, who lives beside the site of the proposed mine and has a Fort McCoy address. “We will lose our quality of life, our air quality and our peace.

“Our very way of life will be gone forever,” said Key, a longtime resident who plans to speak out against the mine during Tuesday’s meeting. She’ll be joined by many other Orange Springs residents who are opposed to the proposal.

The grassroots movement is mimicking the efforts of throngs of Anthony residents who showed up in force three months ago to a county commission meeting and voiced strong disapproval to a proposed 70-acre sand mine, two miles east of town.

During the September meeting, county commissioners voted against the request, following Growth Services staff’s recommendation of denial because the proposed sand mine was not compatible with surrounding residential land uses.

“We have to show up in numbers like they did and speak out against the mine,” said Key, a Marion County Public Schools employee.

Leslie Slaughter Dalton, a paralegal who lives near the proposed project site, said her primary concern is that it is adjacent to Orange Creek, which drains Orange Lake.

“It’s by the creek and thousands of dollars have been spent on the Orange Creek Basin restoration project already,” said Dalton. “My other concern is that it will possibly affect the Floridan Aquifer, residential wells and our area lakes.

“There’s a lot of environmental concern here,” she said. “They denied a mine in Anthony, and we are surrounded by more lakes and natural springs than they are.”

In its Orange Springs application, filed on behalf of Nathan Garcia, owner of MG Cattle, Tillman and Associates, LLC., said the permit will allow for mining and excavation and mass grading to prepare lands for crop production. The property is two parcels zoned A-1 or General Agriculture, and one of them is directly north of Marion County’s Horseshoe Lake Park and Retreat.

On Oct. 24, members of the county’s Planning & Zoning Commission voted 6 to 1 in favor of the permit request, with county staff recommending approval of the project after the applicant addressed staff concerns.

Part of the application contained a soil testing report and an ecological survey to evaluate onsite habitats and identify the presence or potential for presence of protected wildlife species. Modica and Associates, a Polk County company that conducted the survey in early September, found two gopher tortoise burrows on the project site but said up to 10 burrows of the threatened species could be there.

It also noted the area is within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Central Florida Bear Management Unit for the Florida black bear, which is no longer on the state’s threatened or endangered species list. No other protected species were identified on or adjacent to the site, which would require consultation with state agencies, Modica said in its report.

Key, a mother of four including a teen and young adult who live at her home, said her nearly 10-acre property and the surrounding land teems with wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther, along with bears, bobcats, coyotes, deer, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and others.

“It’s easy to go out in the middle of the day when it’s hot and not see any wildlife,” she said. “We see wildlife all the time in the early morning and late afternoon, including panthers.”

Moreover, Key said the proposed mine is located on land that once was the site of Fort Russell, a Seminole Indian War structure that stood on the south side of Orange Creek from 1839-42. The Gazette has not been able to independently verify the fort’s exact location, but the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources has recorded the fort’s site in a Master Site File. The Gazette has filed a request for a copy of the file, but the state usually withholds exact locations of archaeological and or historic sites to prevent unauthorized access and or looting.

Key said a carload of staff from the University of Florida visited her property about 12 years ago and said it was the location of Fort Russell. “They told us that part of our land, the neighbor’s land and the cattle company property is where the fort was located,” said Key. “Our neighbor has found many artifacts over the years.”

In its recommendation to deny the request at the October meeting, County Growth Services staff said its most critical concerns included the lack of evidence from a qualified mining expert supporting the requested extent of the resource extraction. In addition, they noted the application didn’t contain data and analysis from a qualified mining expert on the impacts such change in elevation will have on abutting property, such as historic stormwater flow.

Staff also cited the failure of the application to satisfactorily explain how buffering and screening would be installed to block the noise and visibility of the heavy trucks from impacting adjoining properties or how the company would prevent dust and other airborne particles from encroaching onto adjoining properties.

An Environmentally Sensitive Overlay Zone plan had not been prepared either, county staff said. This plan is needed to demonstrate that the proposed excavation activities would not adversely impact the Orange Creek riparion corridor and connecting aquatic systems.

The entire northern boundaries of both parcels of land are within the County Flood Prone and FEMA 2017 flood zones.

“I can see the tree line of the creek from my house,” said Key. “We’re worried about what’s gonna roll downhill from that mine into our yards and the creek.”

County staff stated in its original analysis that the requested land use would not be compatible with adjacent properties and the application was inconsistent with a section of the county’s Land Development Code, however, since that report has changed their position after the applicant addressed their concerns.

Key said her group has met several times in preparation for Tuesday’s meeting, and many have already contacted county commissioners ahead of it through calls and or emails.

“Just because we’re a one-blinking-light town doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to have a peaceful quality of life,” she said.

As for Dalton, she thinks commissioners should vote to preserve the rural integrity of the area, and Orange Creek.

“We moved to this area because we wanted to live in the country and enjoy the fresh air, peace and quiet,” she said. “We do not want or need a pollution and noise creating sand mine here.”

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