Judge to rule on whether unpermitted mine can continue digging dirt in Lake County

Judge to rule on whether unpermitted mine can continue digging dirt in Lake County

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.

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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.'

The attorney for White Water Farms sent this statement by email: White Water Farms continues to operate legally as an exempt agricultural operation.  The only judge to rule on this case to date dismissed the injunction that she previously granted ex parte (without input from our side) after a full evidentiary hearing.  If a judge or other lawful official issues an order requiring the work to stop, we will comply, just as we did when the initial ex parte injunction was issued.  Until then we will continue establishing the White Water Farms farming operation. Our first blueberry plants will be in the ground by Thanksgiving(ish).  We voluntarily included a 100′ buffer and perimeter berm for the neighbors, and are complying with all FDOT regulations regarding the hauling of materials. We do understand the impact that all of the hauling operations in the vicinity have on the community and the roads.  Our trucks are only a small percentage of the trucks on SR 44, and we continue to implement our truck and highway cleaning at our entrance, prohibition on air braking and “tailgate slapping”, and all other practical conditions to minimize our impact.