9 Investigates

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

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — Lake County is in a legal battle with two property owners over dirt and sand being dug out of two pits near State Road 44 in Sorrento.

Neighbors say, dozens of loud, heavy trucks have been hauling that dirt for months to the Wekiva Parkway project to be used for fill even though neither property has a mining permit.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked into how it’s allowed to continue and asked the Florida Department of Transportation why it would continue to use taxpayer dollars to buy from those properties.

READ: Lake County lawmaker says tweet of AR-15 with message to protesters was warning, ‘not a threat’

“The dust is endless,” neighbor Judy Hamlett said. “As a rule, it’s unbearable.”

From the ground, you taste the dust, hear the trucks and see the view that’s not much of a view at all.

“The excavators, you can’t even see them because the pit is so deep,” Hamlett said.

Officially, the property next to Hamlett’s home is a blueberry farm. The 80-acre property known as Whitewater Farms is the subject of a legal battle between the owners and Lake County.

County leaders filed for an emergency injunction to stop the digging, arguing that the operation was not a “bona fide farm.” That injunction was dissolved by a judge, and county leaders are pushing for another chance in court.

READ: Battle over confederate general statue for Lake County could head to court

“If the state were not purchasing it, this would not be going on,” Hamlett said, referring to the Wekiva Parkway project.

The attorney representing Whitewater Farms told 9 Investigates that the material being dug is the sole source of its type necessary for the project. Attorney Jimmy Crawford went on to say the project currently employs hundreds of Central Floridians and was designated a critical infrastructure construction project, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has emphasized should be continued and accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis.

“If Whitewater Farms stops hauling the material, it would put that vital construction project and hundreds of jobs at severe risk of shutdown at a time when hundreds of thousands of families are already out of work,” Crawford said. “Public policy supports our project.”

Another operation, with another owner right around the corner from Hamlett, is also being sued by Lake County. That location, dubbed the Walkabout Ranch property, is owned by a well-known blueberry farmer and has an even deeper pit. 9 Investigates reached out to the owner’s attorneys who have filed a motion to dismiss Lake County’s petition for injunction.

“It’s a big problem,” neighbor Derald Caldwell said.

READ: 'The most horrific sight I’ve ever seen’: Stolen horse found dismembered, butchered in Marion County

Caldwell and his neighbors are on well water. He worries his well will be compromised with a disruption to the water table from all the digging.

“People work all their life to have a home, and what has this done to people's home values? Get real, who wants to live next to this?” Caldwell said.

The Whitewater Farms attorney said the property is exempt from local government regulation under Florida’s Right to Farm Act. Farm owners can clear land to prepare for planting, but neighbors question whether plants will ever come.

“You can do this and say, this is my blueberry farm,” Hamlett said. “There is no time limit to say, ‘Where are the blueberry plants?’”

FDOT officials said subcontractors are purchasing the fill dirt. After 9 Investigates asked questions, the state agency asked its subs for receipts to see just how much taxpayer money has been used.

Lake County officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Though the Wekiva Parkway project is a joint effort between the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority, only FDOT subcontractors are hauling from those sites. The Central Florida Expressway Authority portions were completed over two years ago.

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.

Comments on this article