Peter Hessling, director of the county’s air quality division, left, and John Cueva, zoning manager for the Pinellas County Planning Department, answer questions during a public hearing Jan. 29 on a rezoning request from Reliable Septic located in unincorporated Pinellas Park.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners approved, 4-3, a resolution Jan. 29, changing the zoning classification of about 0.41 acre on the south side of 90th Avenue North in unincorporated Pinellas Park from C-2 to C-3.
Commissioners John Morroni, Karen Seel and Norm Roche voted no.
Neighbors of Reliable Septic, 6660 90th Ave. N. strongly opposed the rezoning. Most complained about objectionable odors, which were verified by staff on several occasions. Water contamination from run-off was another complaint.
Commissioners questioned staff’s recommendation to approve the request, when the company is in violation of a cease and desist order issued by the county administrator. Reliable Septic is operating a Fats, Oil and Grease (FOG) facility, which is not a permitted use in C-2 zoning. The matter went to court, but as of Jan. 29, the judge had not yet made a ruling.
John Cueva, zoning manager for the Pinellas County Planning Department, said the criteria for approving a zoning change centered on whether the rezoning was compatible with surrounding classifications, not the current use of the property.
County Attorney Jim Bennett said rezoning matters do not take into account use of the property, but only whether the zoning is appropriate.
“Use is a separate issue,” Bennett said.
C-2 is a general retail and limited services district. C-3 is commercial, warehouse, wholesale and industrial support district. C-2 allows operation of an enclosed solid waste facility. The surrounding property, located within the city of Pinellas Park, has zoning classifications compatible with C-2 or C-3, Cueva said.
He said much of the discussion was not so much about the appropriateness of rezoning, but more about how the property’s current use. Approval of the zoning request would allow Reliable Septic to take necessary steps to bring its operations into compliance with current laws, Cueva said.
The Local Planning Agency voted, 5-0, to deny without prejudice, allowing Reliable Septic to revise its site plan and reapply for rezoning.
Commissioner Susan Latvala, who made the motion to approve the rezoning, said approving the request would allow staff to work out a development agreement with Reliable to make sure controls are put in place as quickly as possible to address odor, water quality and other complaints.
Commissioner Karen Seel asked if the commission had ever approved a zoning change without the accompany development agreement.
“This is novel,” County Attorney Jim Bennett said, as he reversed the question to ask, “Have we ever entertained a developer agreement without a zoning application.”
He said he was agreeable with making the developer’s agreement a form of condition on the zoning, adding that it was unusual.
“What if for some reason we turn down the development agreement? That doesn’t undo the zoning,” Seel said.
Bennett confirmed the zoning change would remain.
Commissioner Norm Roche said he would not support rezoning in part due to a matter that came up during the public comment section of the meeting. Neighbors of Ajax Paving Industries in unincorporated Largo are concerned about that company’s application to the state for a permit that they say will negatively affect the air quality in their neighborhood.
“I’m not excited about this decision either,” said Commission Chair Ken Welch. “But there is culpability on both sides of this. My goal is to reduce the odor impacts on the community. And the fact that we did issue a permit and some of the other documentation that we received gives me enough to support this as an imperfect solution.”
Peter Hessling, director of the county’s air quality division, said his office had received about 80 complaints since August 2011. Reliable Septic began operation of its FOG facility in 2011. Thirty-seven of the complaints were verified. He added that only eight complaints had come in over the past 90 days.
Hessling attributes the decrease in complaints to measures Reliable has taken to move more of its operations indoors and changes in its processes to prevent spills and overfills of holding tanks.
Hessling said the odors neighbors were complaining about were consistent with what would be expected from decomposition of organic waste, which could be smelly at low concentrations.
“The facility has attempted and made many physical changes since last year to bring it fully indoors as required by C-3 (zoning),” Hessling said.
Reliable also scaled back its processing from 30,000 gallons a week to 5,000 gallons a week.
“They have made some changes, but there are still measures and steps that need to be done to get better control to continue to operate a FOG facility,” he said.
Kevin S. Hennessy, an attorney with Lewis-Longman & Walker, P.A., spoke for the applicants, William D. Harris and Gloria K. Harris. He said that although Reliable Septic had been located on the property for more than 30 years, it was only recently, after the issue of rezoning came up, that there been any problems.
“Reliable is facing a vocal and aggressive minority,” who are saying the operation is illegal and complaining about the smell, Hennessy said. However, he pointed out that the owner had a permit, issued from the county. The only problem is the zoning.
The county has conceded that a permit was issued although Reliable was not located within a zoning district to operate as a FOG facility. Steps have been taken to inform people in the future if additional requirements must be met before they can begin a permitted activity.
Hennessy said his client had made significant investments in the business with the intention to continue operations. He explained that for the past 30 years, Reliable Septic had processed waste and then hauled it away to facilities where money was paid to dump the waste.
In 2010, a permit was granted to allow Reliable to discharge processed water directly into the sewer system. He said his client wasn’t aware that a rezoning was needed until March 2012. He said separation of water from the solids had always taken place on the property, but now more solids were being removed to comply with requirements to discharge into the sewer system.
Michael Albert, president of Reliable Septic, stressed that the county had issued him a permit, which he put into use.
“I came to you in good faith,” he said. “You knew what I wanted to do.”
He talked about the expenses involved in the permitting process and the cost to comply with laws and regulations. He also talked about the money invested trying to meet the county’s requirements.
“I would not have spent $400,000 if I’d known about the rezoning and the uncertainty of that,” he said.
Ted Legakis, who owns business property on 66th Street North, led the charge against Reliable. He talked about the smell, which he said was so bad it sickened employees and customers. He also complained that there was no buffer between Reliable and its neighbors and said the lot size was too small for a FOG facility.
“It’s like fitting an elephant in a shoe box,” he said. “And that building was not designed for that use.”
Ray Wiggins and his wife Carol live in a residential area off 67th Street in Pinellas Park. They also opposed the rezoning due to the smell.
“There are certain times you are just overwhelmed by the noxious foul stench,” he said.
Wiggins said they were concerned that a rezoning would allow Reliable to expand its operations, resulting in more odor problems.
Others complained about possible contamination from water runoff.
Albert said he was currently working on additional measures to reduce and monitor odors, as well as continue work to move operations indoors as required. But, he is reluctant to continue investing money if the property cannot be rezoned.
Welch asked if Reliable was willing to cease operations until new controls are in place to address odors and possible water contamination.
“They can’t cease and stay in business,” Hennessy said.
He explained that there were contracts in place that Reliable needed to honor. The price is reliant on being able to discharge liquid waste into the sewer versus paying discharge fees at another facility.
Welch asked how long it would take to get control measures in place.
“Days, weeks, a month,” Albert said.
“We promise you if you approve the zoning, he will do what he needs to do,” Hennessy said. “We’ve been here for 40 years. He (Albert) wants to do this for his business and his family.”