Commissioner Fried on FDOT “Severe Black Eye” for Wekiva Parkway

Nov 23, 2020

Tallahassee, Fla. — On Friday, Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine sent the Governor a letter on behalf of the Wekiva River Basin Commission regarding the alleged “illegal mining operations” supporting the Wekiva Parkway Extension project in Lake County. The letter highlighted the failure of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to “coordinate with and rely on the positions of its sister agency, FDACS,” referred to FDOT’s “indifference and inaction” as a potential “severe black eye” for the publicly-funded roadway project, and asked the Governor to halt the operations.

Landowners are conducting unauthorized borrow pit operations to provide fill dirt for Wekiva Parkway road construction, but “have not obtained the proper permits or authorizations from the relevant state and local agencies with statutory jurisdiction over those borrow pits,” including the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. FDACS has not approved agricultural exemptions for the landowners, has issued a binding determination [LINK] that they are not eligible for agricultural exemptions, and has asserted in legal filings that the land and operations are not agricultural in nature. Lake County and the St. Johns River Water Management District have also pursued litigation regarding these operations.

Despite this, FDOT has continued to allow these environmentally harmful operations to persist, including purchasing the fill dirt through subcontractors.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried today offered the following statement:

“People expect their government to work together to solve problems, but exactly the opposite is happening here. Each day, thousands of tons of dirt are excavated under the misleading guise of agriculture, in defiance of state regulations, and with the implicit approval and taxpayer funding of the Florida Department of Transportation. These unauthorized operations may cause serious potential environmental harm to the Wekiva River Basin, its wetlands, and its residents. FDOT and the landowners have a legal obligation to respect our jurisdiction, abide by our findings, and coordinate with our agency, and a moral obligation to do right by their neighbors and local residents. I expect the Governor to order his Department of Transportation to do exactly that.”

Background: Under 373.406(2) and 373.407, Florida Statutes, FDACS has the statutory authority to make a binding determination as to whether an existing or proposed agricultural activity qualifies for an exemption from land use permitting. On July 24, following site inspections by FDACS personnel, FDACS issued a binding determination that denied the agricultural exemption and found that the “massive excavation project” was not “normal and customary” for local agriculture, and that “the excavation has significantly altered the existing hydrology” and would “impede the flow of surface waters.” The binding determination may be viewed here.