Judge backs biomass land-use change

MANATEE — The developer of a proposed biomass power-generating plant near Port Manatee has scored its first legal victory, but the battle over the project is not yet over.

An administrative law judge recommended Wednesday that the state approve a proposed Manatee County land-use change that would allow the plant at U.S. 41 and Armstrong Road. In doing so, the judge rejected a neighboring property owner’s contention that the change did not meet state law.

“Petitioner has failed to establish beyond fair debate that the amendment is not in compliance,” the judge, Donald R. Alexander, wrote in his 34-page order.

Florida Biomass Energy LLC‘s proposed plant would burn biomass or plant material, primarily wood chips and non-food crops, to generate up to 60 megawatts of electricity for sale to utilities and others. To allow the facility, Manatee agreed to amend its comprehensive plan to change the 44-acre site’s future land-use designation.

But the proposed change has not taken effect because of a challenge by U.S. Funding Group, which owns 88 nearby acres approved for a 66-lot single-family development. U.S. Funding contends the proposed plant will cause adverse noise, traffic and potential pollution impacts on its proposed Bishop Harbor Estates subdivision. It said the county inadequately studied those impacts before passing the land-use change.

Alexander disagreed in his order, which was based on five days of testimony during a pair of hearings in April and May.

Robert Lincoln, U.S. Funding’s attorney, did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday. Deputy County Attorney Jim Minix said, “Of course, we’re very pleased with the result.”

Alexander’s order is advisory only and now goes to the Florida Department of Community Affairs for action, but it doesn’t end the dispute. U.S. Funding still can file objections to the order and appeal whatever decision the state agency makes, Minix said.

“This is just the first battle, so we can’t pat ourselves on the back too much yet,” he said.

U.S. Funding also is challenging the proposed plant in Manatee County Circuit Court, records show. It has filed two lawsuits asking the court to review and strike down the county’s rezoning of the site and approval of a preliminary site plan. Those cases are pending.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.