INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — In 2007, the Indian River County government approved a site plan for the Prestige Concrete plant to be constructed just south of 45th Street in Gifford, across the street from homes, near two retirement communities and not far from Dodgertown Elementary School.
The residents of Gifford heard about it through the grapevine — not from county staff. On Tuesday, during a Board of County Commissioners’ discussion about changing the zoning of industrial areas in Gifford, about 80 residents showed up to deliver 1,162 signed petitions against the plant and to voice their dismay. The county was technically not required to notify the residents or any of the neighborhood or civic associations, since the concrete plant fell under the guidelines of what is considered a permitted use in an IG (General Industrial) district. Should a developer or business owner wish to get approved for a use not consistent with current zoning, the surrounding residents 300 feet around the property would be notified.
The fact that, due to a technicality, the project was pushed through without notifying the surrounding residents angered local NAACP President Tony Brown. Brown has mobilized concerned citizens all over the county by telling them that the same thing could happen to their neighborhood.
“Would you want it in your front yard or next to your house?” Brown asked the Board of County Commissioners.
“Let’s take all the craziness out of this and consider my people, your people. There are daycare centers and elderly people in proximity to this,” Brown said. “We will not stand for having our children have asthma and respiratory problems, ground contaminants and further contamination of an acquifer that’s already contaminated because of the old Gifford landfill.”
The Gifford Progressive Civic League, Gifford Front Porch Committee and the Gifford Chapter of the NAACP showed up in force on Tuesday because — although those organizations have been called partners in the efforts to revitalize Gifford and to bring in state and federal dollars for programs, beautification efforts and affordable housing, none of the leaders of those groups were notified, either.
“When you look to a group of people and ask us to collaborate and ask us to work together and then something of very great importance comes up and we hear nothing, it’s perceived as wrong and perception is a strong tool,” said Freddie Woolfork, who spoke on behalf of the Gifford Front Porch Committee, an effort founded by former Governor Jeb Bush for revitalization of economically disadvantaged communities.
The county technically did nothing wrong by not notifying those groups, as they had not signed up in the Community Development office to be on a list of “concerned parties” in regard to projects in the Gifford community.
“The Progressive Civic League and the NAACP have been around since the 1960s, we should have been part of the interested parties,” said Joe Idlette, president of he Gifford Progressive Civic League. “We have property tax bills sitting on our desks waiting to be paid; we pay our share of the taxes. It is morally wrong that we were not notified.”
Currently, Gifford contains 163 acres of IG-zoned property, about two-thirds of all the heavy industrial area in the county. The zoning designation was put in place in 1957.
When faced with an agenda item proposing changing all the industrial zoning in Gifford from General Industrial to Light Industrial — a designation that would not allow such uses as a concrete plant — the Board of County Commissioners voted to direct staff to meet with Gifford community leaders to come up with a plan that would be congruent with the goals of the Gifford community.
Commissioner Bob Solari asked that the staff especially look at the potential economic impacts to Gifford of eliminating heavy industry and its accompanying jobs from the area.
Woolfork said that keeping zoning designations from 1957 and operating under them in 2009 would be akin to him still “running around in diapers” as a grown adult instead of wearing a suit.
“We don’t need a concrete plant in our back yard,” Woolfork said.
Woolfork said the IG designation that allows the concrete plant and projects like it just “doesn’t fit” in Gifford, which is primarily a residential community bustling with young children and senior citizens.
“We know it’s not a race issue — it’s not. What it is, is a community standing up for what we believe we should have,” he said.
The Prestige Concrete plant is on hold, as Prestige, which was recently bought out by another company, has not completed the needed requirements to get a site plan release, including traffic considerations and environmental studies. The extension on the site plan approval expires in June 2010. If the project does not move forward by then, county officials said, it would not be granted another extension.
Mother, businesswoman and activist Althea McKenzie told commissioners that the choice to allow projects like the Prestige Concrete plant to go up in a residential neighborhood is a choice “between money and people” and that the young and old of the community would suffer the most from the potential hazards to the air quality and groundwater.
Thomas Lang, a representative of the Prestige Concrete operation, spoke at the meeting in defense of his company’s record for being responsible, good neighbors.
“We’re not going to come into a project and ruin a neighborhood,” he said. “In no way is Prestige coming to Vero to become a detriment to the community.”
Lang suggested that company representatives should meet with the Gifford residents to hear out their concerns and diffuse some of the anger and possible misconceptions about the environmental impacts of the proposed plant.
Brown indicated that the issue about the concrete plant “is not over” and that resources within the NAACP could potentially bring legal action should the project go forward. Brown emphasized that it was not a threat, but simply a reminder that the residents of Gifford would not tolerate being “disrespected” in this manner.
Commissioner Gary Wheeler said he wanted to put to rest any allegations of wrongdoing by county staff, but that he also wanted to make sure a similar oversight never happens again.
He asked that the Gifford Progressive Civic League be viewed as the official representatives of Gifford and whenever a matter arises that would concern them or would necessitate notifying other municipalities, that Gifford should be afforded the same courtesy.
Wheeler said he would ask the county attorney how to best codify that intent as a policy of the county going forward.