Better Lake Than Never?

Officials insist the Lake Belt created by limestone mining in Northwest Miami-Dade will be an eco-panacea. Critics say that's all wet.

Lange admits at this point in the process the Lake Belt could be almost impossible to stop. Still she hopes her efforts can save more of the wetlands and pressure the miners to pay more for destroying the wetlands.

Back in her Coconut Grove office, the activist saves her best for last, pulling out a letter she plans to introduce at the May 17 Lake Belt committee meeting (held monthly), of which she is now a member representing the Sierra Club. It's vintage Lange, playful with an underlying seriousness. "We object to the euphemism of a so-called Lake Belt plan," she writes in the letter. "What is actually being evaluated is an immense system of quarry pits that cause considerable adverse ecological effects and provide minimal, if any, ecological values."

Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Steve Satterwhite
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year

Since 1996 the four major rock-mining companies involved in the Lake Belt have given more than $124,000 to candidates, parties, and political-action committees. The actual total is likely much higher, because the number does not include contributions from individuals. For example Paul Larsen himself has donated close to $7000. Some environmentalists believe there is more than a casual connection between the rock miners' ability to push the Lake Belt through Tallahassee and the generous support they bestow. Among the favorite recipients of the miners' financial largess are state Rep. Alex Villalobos and state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart. The two Miami-Dade County legislators regularly receive the maximum $500 donation from the companies.

"They have been enthusiastic about the plan," says Larsen of the two politicians. "They have been convinced, again all things considered, that this is good."

Villalobos says he liked the Lake Belt plan when he first saw it as a freshman representative in 1992, because everyone, including environmentalists, had agreed to it. "We got it after it was chewed and digested," he notes.

The representative insists he doesn't receive more money from the miners than anyone else.

Villalobos might be expected to have a special insight into rock mining. His father, José Villalobos, is a lobbyist for Rinker, the largest rock miner in the Lake Belt. The elder Villalobos is a liaison to a county blasting task force formed to investigate the complaints of angry homeowners over blasting by the miners. Villalobos sees no conflict. "What we did had nothing to do with the blasting issue," says the legislator.

But despite the cash, the rock miners might not be as invincible as Podgor and Rist seem to believe. Just ask Jane Gentile.

The North Miami-Dade real estate agent knew nothing about the Lake Belt, though she lived just 1.8 miles from its proposed boundaries. Like many North Miami-Dade residents, Gentile has felt the impact of blasting while inside her home. She does not necessarily attribute it to limestone mining, though. Her unincorporated neighborhood is known by its residents as Country Club Lakes, which underscores that just as much, if not more, blasting has come from developers excavating fill on which to build waterfront subdivisions than it has from mining.

Gentile first learned about the Lake Belt last November while reading e-mail advisories from her real estate association. Despite being a member of the local zoning board Community Council 5, until then it was on her radar as a hazy environmental plan that included drinking water safeguards. "Lake Belt, Karate Belt, what did I know about it? I'm a realtor." she laughs. "This stuff was way above my head."

That is until she stumbled upon the small legislative notice for an amendment passed by the legislature in June 1999. The new law forced all homeowners living within two miles of the boundaries of the Lake Belt to include an affidavit of disclosure when selling their houses. The affidavit notifies the buyers their new home is in close proximity to an area where dangerous explosives are being used. The punishment for not including the affidavit in home sales included civil and criminal misdemeanor penalties. A home buyer who did not sign the document could return the house up to seven years after its purchase. The new law affected more than 50,000 homeowners.

"It completely removes the miners from any liability for blasting," notes Gentile.

Representative Villalobos says he was unaware the language for the affidavit had been slipped into his 1999 bill for the Lake Belt, which among other things set mitigation fees for the miners. "[The affidavit amendment] was made in the Senate," he is quick to say.

Gentile and South Broward Realty Association president Bill Valdez claim Senator Diaz-Balart admitted to them he put the affidavit into the bill in the last two days of the session. Diaz-Balart acknowledges responsibility for inserting the amendment.

At a community council meeting shortly after reading the e-mail, Gentile had the opportunity to question someone from the South Florida Water Management District who was giving a presentation about the Lake Belt. In response county staff quietly passed out the affidavit to the board. Gentile says she leaped from her seat and began hollering. The zoning board quickly passed a unanimous resolution demanding repeal of the new law.

Gentile notified Valdez, who began to lobby aggressively in Tallahassee against the measure.

Today even Paul Larsen admits the affidavit was a mistake. "The miners may have suggested that, but it went too far," he says. "The affidavit inflamed people; it made them mad." He says the miners didn't anticipate the strength of the reaction against the affidavit and what was perceived as heavy-handed action by them. He notes that until now the miners, who sell their product wholesale, not retail, have never had to be sensitive to public perception.

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