LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — Neighbors to a giant pit in Lake County are hopeful a Judge will rule in favor of an administrative complaint, aimed at closing down what county leaders call an unpermitted mining operation.
9 Investigates first exposed the Florida Department of Transportation was buying fill dirt for the Wekiva Parkway project from two adjacent pieces of property, even though both landowners were being sued by Lake County because they didn’t have permission to dig those deep holes.
Now, the fight has gone to the state level. Both the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the St. Johns River Water Management District have said in court records they do not believe the property known as White Water Farms is in the process of becoming a blueberry farm. An administrative judge heard that argument late last week, and now both sides are waiting on a ruling to determine whether the hauling of dirt will be stopped.
Complaints from neighbors, and a lawsuit from Lake County, have not been enough to stop the digging and hauling of dirt from Whitewater Farms off of Highway 44 in Sorrento. In August, owner Chris Leiffer told 9 Investigates he would be digging for years before it ever resembled a blueberry farm.
“You can’t pay $2-million for a property and plant blueberries on it and say, hey, I’m going to make money, you can’t do it,” Leiffer said. “The priority is the dirt.”
Leiffer and his attorney have asserted Florida’s Right To Farm Act as protection from regulation and required permits to mine, but recently-filed court records show the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a binding determination that most of the land is not being used for agricultural purposes. An administrative complaint filed by the St. Johns River Water Management District described the digging as 'inappropriate and unreasonable for a bona fide blueberry and hay/silage farming operation."
Some neighbors have even written to the administrative judge overseeing the issue. One wrote, "Our hope is that the White Water borrow pit is forced to cease all mining and hauling activity. There should be a significant penalty for all the hauling that was done without a permit. A penalty that would set a precedent to deter this sort of thing from happening again.'
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