By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida
CRAWFORDVILLE — Opponents who fear a proposed gas station could damage Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee say they’re unfazed by a new state law designed to limit lawsuits over comprehensive plan changes.
Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, wouldn’t say Monday if his group or other organizations would legally challenge proposed land-use changes sought by Southwest Georgia Oil Co. on a seven-acre parcel in Wakulla County. But Smart said the law (SB 540), signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May, won’t affect the decision.
“I’m not scared of spending money on legal battles if I think I can win,” Smart said before the Wakulla County Commission postponed discussion of the proposed changes Monday. “We’ve got 5,000 people that sent emails to the county commission from across the state that we can ask to support our legal challenge.”
The county attributed the postponement to an overflow crowd that left many people outside in sweltering heat.
The site of the proposed gas station, along with underground tanks to feed 16 pumps, is over an area called Chip’s Hole Cave. Critics raised the potential of leaks affecting Wakulla Springs, part of Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. Wakulla Springs drew notoriety in the past as a film backdrop, including for early Tarzan movies and the horror flick “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Southwest Georgia Oil, the parent of Island fuel and SunStop markets, has requested comprehensive plan and zoning changes to convert the property from an agricultural to commercial designation.
Environmental groups this spring unsuccessfully fought the new state law, which deals with legal challenges to comprehensive-plan changes. The law, which took effect July 1, allows “prevailing” parties to recover legal fees in cases at the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
During the legislative session, opponents argued the threat of facing hefty legal costs would be a roadblock to groups challenging comprehensive-plan changes.
Before Monday’s meeting, Richard Grosso, a lawyer representing Sierra Club Florida, submitted a formal objection to the Wakulla County proposal.
In a letter, Grosso said the county comprehensive plan’s primary environmental-protection goal is to ensure “the enjoyment of natural and man-made resources by citizens while minimizing the threat to health, safety and welfare.”
“A violation of this goal alone, by failing to adequately protect groundwater resources would be inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and, upon a legal challenge, could result in the plan amendment being found” out of compliance, Grosso wrote.
Wakulla County Commission Chairman Ralph Thomas said about 30 minutes into Monday’s 5 p.m. meeting that a special meeting would be scheduled, in a larger venue, as temperatures topped 96 degrees outside the compact Wakulla County Courthouse.
The proposal drew several hundred people, which forced nearly 200 to wait outside watching a pair of small monitors set up next to a speaker.
Janice Brown, 88, a lifelong Wakulla County resident who tried to stay out of the sun, bemoaned that growth in the region has already degraded water conditions through increased traffic, more septic tanks and fertilizer runoff.
“It (the spring) used to be gorgeous, you could see all the way to the bottom,” Brown said.
Thomas suggested the issue could become moot if the state can acquire the land from Southwest Georgia Oil through the Florida Forever land-acquisition program.
First magnitude springs in Bay, Citrus, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hernando, Jackson, Lafayette, Leon, Levy, Madison, Marion, Suwannee, Wakulla, Walton, and Washington counties top what is known as the Florida Forever Partnerships & Regional Incentives list.
The Wakulla Springs Protection Zone in Leon and Wakulla counties is third on that list.