9 Investigates

‘It’s all about the money’: Lake County farm owners sell ‘fill dirt’ for millions, while neighbors say they’ve been left in the dust

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates uncovered millions in purchase orders for “fill dirt” being taken from what Lake County leaders described in lawsuits as “illegal mining operations.”

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first exposed the dirt being used for the Wekiva Parkway project, and at the time officials with the Florida Department of Transportation said they had no idea how much their subcontractors were paying, or that there was a dispute over permitting.

Now, she’s talking to one of the pit owners about the millions he’s set to make selling dirt, and why neighbors could be putting up with the digging for the next five years.

READ: ‘It’s unbearable’: Legal battle continues between Lake County, farm property owners over digging

On a day after a soaking rain, trucks weren’t hauling dirt from the Whitewater Farms pit off Highway 44 in Sorrento, but neighbors said operations haven’t slowed down since the day we flew over with our drone in June.

“Not at all, the noise continues, the dust is repressive,” neighbor Judy Hamlett said.

Since our first story aired in June, a berm has been constructed between Hamlett’s home and the land known as Whitewater Farm; it’s one of two properties, nearly bordering each other, being sued by Lake County while supplying dirt for the FDOT portion of the Wekiva Parkway extension.

“These people are aware, and nothing is being done,” Hamlett said.

9 Investigates has now obtained purchase orders from FDOT subcontractors, showing Whitewater Farms stands to make more than $2 million on fill dirt sales, just under one agreement.

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“You can’t pay $2 million for a property and plant blueberries on it and say, hey, I’m going to make money,” owner Chris Leiffer said. “You can’t do it. The priority is the dirt.”

Owner Chris Leiffer invited us in to show us the operation, where the work hasn’t stopped, even though FDOT leaders told us they have been “actively monitoring and investigating this matter.”

“Under the Right to Farm Act, we do [have the right to dig],” Leiffer said. 

The Florida Right to Farm Act allows farmers to prepare properties for planting, with no time limits given on how long those preparations can take. 

“They’re trying to extort money from us, they want a royalty for the dirt,” Leiffer said about Lake County. “It’s all about money; it’s all politics.”

The other property in litigation with Lake County, known as the Walkabout Ranch, is owned by Tom West Blueberries. One purchase order for dirt there totaled nearly $1.7 million. From April to May alone, nearly $92,000 worth of fill was hauled away.

“I guess it’s all about the money,” neighbor Derald Cardwell said. “When the dirt sales are over with, they’re going to wash their hands and be gone, and all the people who have lived out here for years are going to suffer.”

Leiffer said he has about five years of digging to go before anything will be planted in the pit’s place. 

Lake County leaders confirmed they are working on terms of a settlement agreement with Whitewater Farms, but those details aren’t public yet. A meeting is set for Aug. 25. Leiffer claims the county wants to make a portion of sales of the dirt, and that the permitting issue is an attempt to get that money.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.

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