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Lee County files suit against MW Horticulture

August 14, 2019
By CHUCK?BALLARO (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

After a series of fires and complaints about air and water quality issues near a North Fort Myers yard waste recycling business, Lee County has filed the emergency lawsuit.

The suit filed Tuesday in the 20th Judicial Circuit Court asks a judge to "force MW Horticulture to alleviate the noxious and hazardous conditions that nearby residents and businesses of the company's North Fort Myers site have had to endure the last 20 months," a release from Lee County issued late Tuesday states. "These conditions have included continuous smoke emissions from numerous fires, encroachment on private properties and the county's right-of-way, and obstruction of a storm-water drainage system."

The suit seeks "to bring MW Horticulture into compliance with regulations in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public."

"The county's litigation with MW Horticulture is a last resort to alleviate the safety issues that the property presents to the community," Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch said in the release. "MW Horticulture was fully compensated at its North Fort Myers site by the county's debris contractor for post-Hurricane Irma debris. The present situation is the result of the fact that MW Horticulture continued to take in debris once it reached capacity and refused to expend the costs associated with removal of the materials from the property."

Tuesday's action is the official commencement of litigation following an Aug. 6 vote by the Lee Board of County Commissioners.

The vote, which happened at the regularly scheduled Board meeting, also authorizes the County Attorney's Office to join the Florida Department of Environmental Protection if DEP also files a lawsuit against the business.

Fact Box

County's outline of the issues

* Lee County contracted with Crowder Gulf and other vendors to remove and properly dispose of horticultural debris after Hurricane Irma. Crowder Gulf paid MW Horticulture a total of $479,315 to take in mulched horticulture debris from Lee County at its North Fort Myers and South Fort Myers locations after Irma.

* 12% of the County's debris was sent to MW Horticulture's North Fort Myers site and 15% was sent to MW Horticulture's South Fort Myers site.

* The sheer volume of debris presently on the North Fort Myers site indicate that only a small fraction of the debris came from Lee County.

* At some point, MW Horticulture began using a residential parcel on its North Fort Myers location for debris storage in violation of County regulations. After discovering the debris storage, Lee County informed MW Horticulture the debris must be removed at the end of the state of local emergency.

* No grinding or mulching was ever authorized at this location due to its proximity to nearby residential homes and businesses.

* In September 2017, Lee County staff informed MW Horticulture that the residential parcel must be cleared of debris 30 days after the end of the state of local emergency.

* The state of local emergency ended on June 18, 2018: 14 months ago.

* The large horticultural debris piles have caught fire numerous times, threatening the neighborhood.

* The Bayshore Fire Department has been involved since early 2018 related to the safety issues at the North Fort Myers site.

* The County began the Code Enforcement process in May 2018 to encourage removal of the large debris piles on the property that pose a fire risk to the public. MW requested, and was granted, multiple extensions from the Hearing Examiner through July 5, 2019, to clean up its property and remove the fire hazard. To date, the piles still exist and continue to smolder.

* The County's litigation with MW Horticulture is a last resort to alleviate the safety issues that the property presents to the community.

Source: Lee County Government

MW Horticulture operates sites in North Fort Myers, off East Street, and in south Fort Myers, off Thomas Road. MW Horticulture, which disposes of horticultural waste, leases the property at the two sites from property owners.

The North Fort Myers location, which is owned by Minus Forty Technologies, has been the site of multiple fires from debris collected during Hurricane Irma which can be seen on the corner of its property that abuts Interstate 75. Neighbors have companied about the smoke and the smell.

Both MW Horticulture and the property owners have been ordered to come into compliance with regulations through the county's code enforcement process, as well as fire district and state agency directives.

The Lee County Hearing Examiner in October 2018 found the operation in North Fort Myers in violation for an accumulation of horticultural debris following Hurricane Irma.

The hearing examiner found the company violated code when it tried to grind the pile at its location, which company president Denise Houghtaling said was the only way to avoid starting more fires.

After two deadline extensions, on July 10 the hearing examiner began imposing a daily fine of $200 until the violation is corrected.

The hearing examiner is anticipated to hear a similar request on Aug. 19 for a daily fine to be levied at the South Fort Myers site.

The accumulation at both sites has resulted in numerous fires as well as continuous air- and water-quality issues, officials said.

Commissioners would not comment, since it is pending litigation.

Calls and e-mails to Houghtaling following the Commission action were not returned by press time.

 
 
 

 

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