EAST OF PUNTA GORDA — Mike Garavaglia walks through a field of young citrus trees on his family’s 2,500-acre farm in eastern Charlotte County and admires the scene. Like a doting father, he comments on how nicely his little trees are growing.
In just two years, they have stretched from seeds to several feet tall, and now are showing signs of strong, healthy limbs. If all goes well, in a few years the trees will reach maturity and will be teeming with juicy oranges and fat grapefruits, which will make their way to local supermarkets, or may get shipped to places as far away as Russia and Japan.
A 20-year citrus grower, Garavaglia understands all about patience and risk. It takes about five years and a $20 million investment for a grove his size to produce the first harvest — and that’s barring any unforeseen catastrophe, he said.
So when representatives for Calusa Green LLC approached Garavaglia and his neighbors a few months ago asking what they thought about a proposal to develop a regional landfill on a 550-acre parcel of land adjacent to his property, he scratched his head in disbelief.
“I said: ‘I don’t really know what I think,’” he said. “I didn’t know at that time they were talking about a 200-foot mound literally (at the edge of) our property.”
Garavaglia echoes the sentiments of virtually every property owner who opposes the proposed project: A landfill not only would hurt their quality of life, with the potential of harming the water supply and the surrounding environment; it would destroy their very livelihoods. More than just a “not in my backyard” argument, citrus growers and farmers say a landfill would put them out of business.
“We are responsible for mitigating any risk or any perception of risk,” Garavaglia said. “Just the perception that we can’t mitigate risk would limit our marketability. If someone doesn’t like what we’re doing, they’ll just go somewhere else.”
In his business, like so many other food-producing farms, quality control is paramount, Garavaglia said. His farm is regularly inspected and monitored by third-party auditors for potential food contamination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration regulates food production to include reporting of any toxic material either on the farm or in surrounding areas, he said. And there are industry guidelines and safety standards to which commercial growers also must adhere.
In other words, Garavaglia said, if an inspector catches a whiff of foul odor from a garbage truck traveling down Bermont Road on its way to the proposed Calusa Green landfill, or sees buzzards and seagulls flying overhead feeding off decaying material, his business would be affected — and that would be devastating, he said, given the millions his family has invested in the farm over the last couple of decades.
“It is a life-or-death issue for agriculture,” he said.
To be sure, proponents of the proposed Calusa Green landfill project say the benefits to the county in terms of tax revenue and jobs created over a 30-year period outweigh any perceived risks, and they want the opportunity to educate the public on why the landfill is needed in Charlotte County.
Last month, the developer requested a continuance on an application to rezone 554 acres of land near Babcock Ranch, where the project is being proposed, from agricultural to planned development, in order to build a facility that would accept garbage and biosolids from surrounding communities, including DeSoto, Collier and Hendry counties. Gary Bayne, president of Southwest Engineering and Design, the engineering firm representing Calusa Green, said the county has “dramatically underestimated” how rapidly it is reaching the capacity of its current landfill, and while nobody wants a landfill in his community, it is something needed.
“We have nothing to hide,” Bayne said in a recent phone interview. “The data is the data. We just want to reach out and give (the landowners) the particulars and the details of the applications, so they are clear.”