County staff convinces County Commission to agree to double landfill height from 100 to 200 feet

After residents question impact on ‘view sheds’ involving Myakka River State Park and Hawkins Ranch, Commissioner Hines votes ‘No’

This graphic shows the location of the county landfill. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although concerns arose about the visual impact of a 200-foot-tall mound at the Sarasota County Landfill — especially from Myakka River State Park vantage points — the Sarasota County Commission has approved a doubling of the vertical height of future landfill phases from 100 to 200 feet above ground elevation.

The actual height of the resulting mound would be about 221 feet, according to the staff application for the Special Exception necessary for the initiative.

Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to approve the staff request following an Oct. 7 public hearing, and Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded it.

Only Commissioner Charles Hines voted “No.”

The landfill is located on approximately 549.4 acres at 4000 Knights Trail Road in Nokomis.

Jason Timmons, a professional engineer with the county’s Solid Waste Division, explained to the board members that the second phase of the landfill is expected to reach capacity “in about three years.” Phase I already has been closed, he said. The design for Phase III has been completed, he continued, and staff has received the necessary permits for its construction.

The proposed vertical expansion from 100 to 200 feet for Phases II, III and IV — as well as future phases in the southern and eastern parts of the site, he said — would give the landfill about 15 more years of life. The facility would reach capacity by 2057 at the 100-foot height, Timmons stressed. With the 200-foot height, he added, the county could use the landfill until 2072 without a horizontal expansion.

A graphic shows future phases of the landfill. A county Solid Waste Division engineer says the county could create an area of horizontal expansion below the easternmost portion of the site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In her staff presentation, county Planner Hannah Sowinski put it a different way: The increase in height to 200 feet would extend the life of the current landfill from approximately 35 years to about 50 years, delaying the necessity of the county’s spending an estimated $150 million for the future horizontal expansion.

When Ziegler asked what would happen if the commissioners denied the request for the extra height, Timmons told him Phase III would have to come online by 2035. Then, in 2057, Timmons said, “We’re going to have to be looking at where we are we going to go next.” The big question would be how staff could increase the footprint of the landfill to allow it to hold more garbage, Timmons added.

About 150 acres is available in a section just south of the area where the Radio Control Fliers of Venice Inc. members operate model aircraft, Timmons explained. However, as he emphasized the estimated $150-million expense to develop that portion of the site, Timmons noted that staff also could expect to spend approximately $30 million to construct roads into that area and build the required stormwater systems. Then, he said, another $120 million would be needed for the liners for the landfill in that portion of the site, to prevent fluids from leeching into the ground.

Yet another consideration, Timmons pointed out, is that if the board members agreed on a height lower than 200 feet, and then a future board wanted to increase that, the county would have to remove gas collection systems that would have been installed and spend extra money to put in new infrastructure to accommodate the higher elevation.

For one frame of reference, staff showed the commissioners a slide depicting the former landfill mound that has become a feature of Rothenbach Park in Sarasota, which stands from 60 to 80 feet tall. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In explaining why he made the motion, Maio said, “This is the landfill.” Garbage trucks transport solid waste from the Cities of North Port, Venice and Sarasota to the county landfill, he added. “I think we take care of this.”

In a way, Maio continued, the landfill could be called a county treasure. “And fortunately we have it, and it has a great deal of expansion possibilities. … I would hate to waste any of it.”

Maio further pointed out that the facility “was deliberately located centrally” in the county.

In her presentation, Planner Sowinski noted that the landfill is about 3 miles east of Interstate 75, approximately 3 miles south of Clark Road, and about 4.5 miles north of Laurel Road.

“I think Commissioner Maio’s spot on,” Commissioner Ziegler said. “It’s much more difficult,” Ziegler added, to create a new landfill “than to squeeze out the greatest [return on investment]” on the phases already planned on the Knights Trail Road site. Further, Ziegler pointed out, “There’s going to be a lot of growth that way [in terms of new residential development].”

Commissioner Hines focused on how the 200-foot-tall mound at the landfill would look from Myakka River State Park, even though the mound would be covered with sod. “It’s unique and needs to be protected,” he said of the park. “You should see nothing [there] other than nature.”

This image shows a 200-foot-tall mound at the landfill superimposed on the horizon (center), as seen from a kayak on the Lower Myakka Lake at Myakka River State Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the public hearing, Jono Miller of Sarasota, the retired director of the Environmental Sciences Program at New College of Florida, talked about the potential “view shed” issues.

Miller pointed out that Myakka River, which runs through the state park of the same name, was the state’s first designated wild and scenic river. When county staff was preparing to conduct the required Neighborhood Workshop on the landfill height proposal, he continued, the notice went to state officials, not the staff at the park. Thus, the park managers were unaware of the county’s proposal, Miller said. “They have not really been participating as parties in these discussions.”

“I personally think you should want to know where this thing is going to be visible,” Miller told the commissioners, referring to the 200-foot-tall mound. If the board members held off on a decision, he added, staff could undertake more research into that issue.

Later, Hines referred to Miller’s comments, noting that criticism arose several years ago when the county approved a cell phone tower in the vicinity of the park.

Sarasota resident Jono Miller presented this graphic to the board to illustrate the height being requested for the landfill phases. The Celery Fields reference is to the mound that is a popular destination for hiking. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton, who assisted staff with the application for the extra landfill height, did show the board members a slide illustrating a view of the 200-foot-tall mound from a kayak from the Lower Myakka Lake at the park. As Medred noted, the mound mostly blended in with the trees on the horizon.

As for someone driving down State Road 72: Medred added that they might be able to catch glimpses of the mound. Still, he said, “It’s not like this mass that’s on the horizon.”

Another line-of-site issue

Hines also asked about the view of the mound from the Hawkins Ranch, which is located north of the county landfill site.

Attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, who was representing the Hawkins family during the hearing, requested, on his clients’ behalf, that the mound be no taller than 80 feet in the area closest to the ranch. (Maio made no mention of that in his motion to support the staff request.)

Bailey pointed out that the Hawkins Ranch has been “a real cattle ranch” for about 130 years.

In an Aug. 12 letter he sent to the county Planning Commission, Bailey noted that when staff was going through the permitting process for the landfill, in the 1990s, staff assured the Hawkins family members that the landfill height would not exceed 100 feet. Bailey emphasized concern about the area of the landfill that is only a quarter of a mile south of the ranch “and is not fully screened by trees.”

In response to Hines’ Oct. 7 question about the view of the mound from the ranch, Medred of Genesis Planning & Development presented a graphic produced by the Jones Edmunds engineering consulting firm that had also worked with staff on the project. Again, Medred pointed out, the landfill mound — which would be covered with sod — generally would blend in with the trees in the area.

This illustration shows the potential view of a 100-foot-tall mound at the landfill (right) and the potential view of a 200-foot-tall mound from the boundary of the Hawkins Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Financially, how detrimental would it be to us to do 180 or 170 [feet], versus 200, which seems to me would eliminate a lot of visual impacts?” Hines asked.

Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, told Hines that staff had not undertaken any analysis of the implications of reducing the height from 200 feet to 170 feet or 180 feet. Still, Mylett said, if the board approved one of those lower elevations, that would “buy time to delay the horizontal expansion of the [landfill].”

Hines responded that he was trying to find a compromise, so the mound would “almost completely disappear” in the line of site from surrounding areas.

Commissioner Nancy Detert also talked of the visual impacts of a 200-foot mound, especially after she learned from staff that the former Venice landfill — which is near her home — stands only 40 feet high.

Comparing a 200-foot mound to that one, she said, is “kind of a stunner. … I’m just kind of stuck on this.”
Finally, Detert said, “I’m going to take a giant leap of faith and support [the doubling of height at the county landfill] and hope it all turns out well.”

Chair Michael Moran told his colleagues that they should not forget the fact that staff was talking in terms of 2020 financial estimates for proposals to contend with the potential of the board’s denying the request for 200 feet.