“This dog won’t hunt.” So said commissioner chair Ronald Williams, flourishing a [solicited] letter with the seal of the Florida Department of Agriculture stating that the Ordinance written by the commission was illegal in the State of Florida.
The re-writing of the Columbia County Land Development Regulations has been in the works since 2015 when JTC Farms silently and quickly began an industrial chicken factory near the Santa Fe River less than one and a half miles from Fort White. At first the commission resisted and rebuffed all those who protested, but later showed compassion and expressed a desire to work with environmentalists toward amendments in the regulations which would allow the county to have more control over CAFOs.
Thus in August members of OSFR met with County Attorney Joel Foreman in his office to began a re-writing which would redefine ‘intensive agriculture” and require county control and oversight regarding CAFOs on high recharge areas of the aquifer. This portion of Columbia County so designated includes roughly the area south of Hwy 27 and the basin of the Ichetucknee.
Mr. Foreman carefully worded the amendment to allow for the right to farm and other pertinent agricultural laws. and the amendment passed the first reading and was ready for the vote last night, Feb. 16, 2017. A crowd of an estimated 500 showed up, composed mostly of farmers and ranchers. It appears that Chairman Williams contacted the Dept. of Agriculture and perhaps others advising them of the second and final reading.
Those who spoke against the amendment were from groups such as the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Florida Forestry Association, the Columbia County Farm Bureau, and Pacific Legal Foundation of Hobe Sound, Fl.
It also appeared there was confusion about the information these groups received, as expressed by Attorney Joel Foreman at the beginning of the meeting, who reiterated that the amendment had nothing to do with forestry, row crops or the small farmer or rancher, only industrial agriculture such as concentrated animal feeding operations such as the JTC Farms’ chicken operation.
In spite of Mr. Foreman’s clarification, most of the opposition focused on three points, which were that the amendment would cost the farmers money, curtail their rights, and was illegal. Several threatened lawsuits if the board were to pass it.
During the commissioners’ comments and question period, what stood out like a clap of thunder, was the silence on their part in directing questions to their paid, elected attorney, Mr. Foreman. This was the board’s Ordinance, this their legal counsel: why did no one direct a single question to him as to the legality of the Ordinance, which was repeatedly challenged by the opposition? Some suggested the opposition was solicited, since we know the chairman solicited the letter from the Dept. of Agriculture. Apparently, the board members were privy to Mr. Williams actions and intent, but obviously not the County Attorney, over whose head Mr. Williams went flying.
Why did Mr. Williams not share with the board and interested public his intent to oppose the board’s ordinance at least a year ago? Why did he allow his attorney to spend his valuable time, not to mention those from the environmental groups, working on something he was determined to undercut, and encourage his fellow board members to oppose also?
These are legitimate questions to which the taxpayers of Columbia County deserve answers. One witness to the events last night, for the reasons above, aptly described it as a “false public meeting.”
It is unfortunate that the farm and ranch representatives seem to have no understanding of the intent of the amendment, and little or no understanding of the crises our rivers and springs are undergoing. Most seem oblivious to the nitrate problem, saying they were the “original environmentalists,” again implying they have everything under control, and “everything works just fine as it is.” Also, had they been able to get past their emotion, they would realize that industrial agriculture will be harmful to the small farmer and rancher.
Sadly, the board reflects the same ignorance, as Mr. Williams’ parting comment was “Agriculture doesn’t pollute the rivers, people do.”
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-