Whoa. I hadn’t realized it had been this long since the last blog post. The cries of anguish and despair from the fans has been hard to drown out, so we’re finally back.

Of interest this week was a hearing I attended on Wednesday of the Citrus County Mining Special Master. Basically, Citrus County has a land use/zoning category called the Extractive district that allows specifically for mining. There are a few other things allowed, but generally, it’s a land use for mining and mining only.

I’ll provide a couple maps. The thumbnails are hard to read, so click through to see them at original size:

The mine property is the red area toward the left. The Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant is just to the west.

For those of you who need a larger context. Mine is in red in the upper left.

So, in this case, the owner of a property with the EXT land use has proposed to build a mine on his property. Go figure–the nerve of this guy! And you know what? I think he ought to be able to do that. Now, a little historic context: all the land to the west of the mine property is currently Conservation land owned by the State of Florida, but it used to be all mining land. And you can see the remnants of the mining activity in that conveniently squarish-shaped lake just to the northwest of the property. Obviously someone was mining here many years ago, so it’s really not that big of a stretch to mine it today.

Nature Coast Mine

There are problems, though. There are some residential neighbors. (Aren’t there always?) And they don’t think highly of a mine in their backyards. Plus (and  here’s the big one): see that little yellow box inside the big yellow box? The big box is the mine property, the little box inside it is a cemetery (see also, here).

Holy cow! A cemetery. Right in the middle of the extractive property. When I saw this back when the idea first came up maybe four or five years ago, I was shocked. This is what we in the business call “incompatibility.” We’ve got two incompatible land uses right up against each other. It’s almost impossible for both of these lands to be put to their intended uses at the same time without one interfering with the other’s normal activity.

What I’d like to do is unpack this a little bit, and tell you how we at Achievable Solutions would deal with a problem like this if it was ours to deal with.

1. The first thing to notice is that both sides have a point. It does no good to simply deride the other side as greedy or NIMBY or whatever, because generally they’re not, and more important,  it’s counterproductive. Instead, let’s try to look at both sides of the issue.

On the mine’s side, this is land that has been designated EXT by the county government on the Future Land Use map. In essence, the county has said this is exactly the place we want a mine to be in the future. Now, here comes a guy saying “You want a mine there, I’ll put a mine there” and next thing you know, he’s being denied his application. Nobody denies we need mines–it’s not like the opponents are wishing that the asphalt roads they drove on to the hearing want to see those downgraded to sugar sand. However, very few people want to have that mine in their backyard.

The way land use planners generally deal with minimizing these kinds of incompatibilities is first through transitional land uses and then through buffering and other development-level requirements in the code. The transitional land use route is closed to us here, unfortunately. What you’d want to do is put agriculture or conservation land or some type of commercial land in between the extractive land and the residential. In this case, the land uses have already been established and committed.

So, we’re left with the standards in land development or zoning code to provide some protection for the incompatibilities. Legally, that’s all that the mine is obligated to do to minimize the land use conflict.

I’m not going to talk about whether the code is adequate for these purposes or whether the local government has any responsibility to do anything here. I’m only interested in: what do we do now if we’re one of the parties to the conflict?

2. The second thing to notice is that we’re already too late in the process to handle this easily. The mine owner bought this property in 2006 for $1.1 million–a staggeringly good deal for a property that if fully mined could be worth $10 to $15 million. We basically have four affected parties here: three residential neighbors plus the cemetery. Had they gotten together at the beginning, they could have avoided all this by just buying land they knew was zoned for mining. Now, however, the mine owner has already invested probably $1 million cash plus committed another $1 to $2 million to land development costs.

This is the way of land development: if you can get in the discussions early, you can find compromise. If you wait to react, the two sides get so committed to their plans that it becomes very confrontational. And confrontation leads to lawyers and lawyers lead to court and court means lots and lots of money spent for no real purpose.

So, lesson one is to be aware of your surrounding land uses and zoning districts and keep in mind that legally, whatever is allowed on those properties can go there without even so much as a by-your-leave. If you have industrial zoning next door, it doesn’t matter if it looks like a serene and peaceful forest today, it could be a factory or a concrete batch plant tomorrow. Had the residents and the cemetery thought this way in 2005, they could have picked up 150+ acres for less than $10,000 per acre and never had to worry about what’s happening right now. And we could have helped them figure out how to transform that land into something both valuable and compatible with their property and the surrounding properties.

3. But, we’re too late for all that, so what now? Obviously, both sides can continue down the course they are currently going. That’s going to end either with a Bert Harris claim or with a fully functional mine on the property. Too zero-sum game-ish for my liking.

Instead, I prefer to lean on economics: in 1959 Ronald Coase (who would later win a Nobel prize) wrote an article dealing with externalities (unintended affects on others as a result of someone’s action) and came up with what is now known as the Coase Theorem. Basically, people will either pay to convince others to tolerate their externalities or they’ll pay to stop someone from engaging in actions causing externalities. Of course, we aren’t in a situation of no cost transactions and we’ve got zoning laws to deal with to boot. Still, applying this to our situation, the costs of a fully functioning mine here–noise, traffic, dust, vibration–will be steep on the abutting property owners, so it is in their interest to diminish the size and extent of the mining. The mine owner needs to be able to mine a very large portion of that property to have an economically viable mine, so he will need to have smaller setbacks than the minimum required in order to do that.

Seems to me that means there’s room to bargain: an agreement to maintain a more attractive buffer in exchange for somewhat reduced setbacks, maybe. Or the other direction: get rid of the concept of the mine and explore other uses of the property. Subdivide into an industrial property along the railroad tracks, a conservation tract as a transitional land use, and then maybe ten 10-acre residential lots. Or better yet, ten lots clustered in a conservation-based subdivision with connections to the Eco-Walk Trail and the Crystal River Buffer Preserve to the south. Either way, both sides are going to have to give up something, but I think that in the end they’ll both be happier.

In any event, that’s the way we think at Achievable Solutions: let’s come up with alternatives and solutions instead of demanding our way. We have good people on both sides of these kinds of issues. Compromise is still there to be tried.