Overflow crowd at Colony Cottage Recreation Center presses Sumter County Commission on water bottling issue

About 400 people packed the meeting room Tuesday night of the Sumter County Board of Commissioners to ask the commission to intervene in a 20-year water pumping permit issued for an Ocala company. More people were turned away at the door when the room reached capacity.

But the commission, meeting at the Colony Cottage Recreation Center, wouldn’t budge and chairman Garry Breeden said commissioners need to remain objective in the case.

The state permit was issued earlier this month by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to SWR Properties, also known as Spring Water Resources, to pump nearly 496,000 gallons of water daily from two springs along County Road 470 near Sumterville.

An overflow crowd attended Tuesday's Sumter County Commission meeting.
An overflow crowd attended Tuesday’s Sumter County Commission meeting.

The commission has authority to approve zoning, building permits and roadway improvements needed for the pumping facility.

The water would be sold to Azure Water of Leesburg, which supplies grocery, convenience and other stores with bottled water under several brand names.

Board chairman Garry Breeden let anyone who wished to speak, but ultimately would not agree to the audience’s demand that the board ask the water district to grant an administrative hearing in the case.

Villager Marsha Shearer challenged the board to abide by the county’s comprehensive plan, which sets a goal of protecting the environment.

“Allowing water to be pumped without cost, transported, processed and bottled for the purpose of selling back to the public that which is readily available by turning on the tap, does not meet the criteria of ‘conserve and protect while maintaining the highest environmental quality possible,’” she said. “It is your responsibility, as our elected representatives, to follow your own plan.’

Shearer said the water pumping permit also violates another section of the plan which calls for the county to “continue to require the conservation of water resources in the county.”

Besides taking water from the Florida aquifer, Villager Tom Leonard said he’s concerned about the plastic bottles used to market the water.

“Energy used to make plastic for these bottles requires about 17 million barrels of oil annually,” he said.

Retired federal judge Alan Gold called on the commission to represent its constituents by asking the water district to hold an administrative hearing.

“You have the resources, you have the attorney, you have the ability to get this done,” he said. “This is a defining moment whether this commission has the courage to stand and say you’re going to represent the citizens.”

Village of Duval resident Len Benoit said he remembers a drought that occurred in 2002 and 2003 and the water pumping permit could hamper the area’s ability to recover from another one. Gail Gibson, who worked as a hydrologist in Collier County, said salt water infiltration into the fresh water supply and cones of depression, or empty spaces, caused by pumping are two important factors.

“It makes little sense to me to take our scarce resource and give it away,” said John Townley, who also lives in Duval.

The audience got rowdy, shouting insults at commissioners, when chairman Garry Breeden said the board would not put the issue up for a vote Tuesday night.

“We try to be fair to all parties in every case,” he said. “We also have to look at all aspects of the situation.”

Breeden said he has mentioned to a water district official that the amount of water might be too high. But he said pressing for an administrative hearing could lead to charges of bias if the commission later turns down a zoning change or makes another decision on the project.

The audience didn’t buy that explanation.

“You’re really putting all of us in jeopardy,” responded Villager Kathy Scott.

After most of the audience left, commissioners had more comments.

 Commissioner Don Hahnfeldt said he did not agree with Shearer’s comments that the board was violating provisions in the county’s comprehensive plan.

“In my opinion, it was a misinterpretation,” agreed Breeden.

Hahnfeldt also said he’s confident that the water district analyzed the application to make sure it conforms to state requirements.

Commissioner Doug Gilpin said taking sides on the water issue would violate his oath of office.

”This is not the role of our board,” he said. “It’s the role of public citizens. I wish we had been able to get that across when the room was full.”

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