EAST OF PUNTA GORDA — Back in 2005, when Omni Waste proposed a regional garbage dump across from the Babcock Ranch Preserve, then-Charlotte County Landfill Director Jim Thomson argued the landfill should be rejected because the county had no need for its capacity.
Thomson, who now works as CEO of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, since has been hired as a consultant for Calusa Green, a group of investors planning a similar regional landfill in the same area.
Thomson said Thursday he now supports Calusa’s argument that Charlotte County needs the extra capacity, to accommodate debris from a future disaster like Hurricane Charley.
“Yes, it would be a true asset,” Thomson said. “When that storm hit, in 2004, the amount of waste coming into the Charlotte County landfill (on Zemel Road, south of Punta Gorda) was just enormous. To have another landfill to take it, so we don’t have to fill ours up, would be an asset.”
Thomson’s conversion has raised questions of conflict of interest among some environmental advocates.
“It’s a conflict of interest for him to say he’s an expert when he had one opinion when he represented the county and another when he represented Calusa Green,” said Fred Hill, chairman of the Southwest Florida Rural Landowners Association. His group formed recently to oppose the landfill and other threats to what he calls “rural heritage.”
“If he was wrong, then why did (Charlotte County) hire him in the first place, and why did we pay the bill?” he asked.
Calusa Green’s lead engineer Gary Bayne said his firm hired Thomson to provide insight on landfill operations, and to have him double-check plans drafted by Calusa’s primary engineering consultant, HSA Golden.
“Jim was brought on more as the local guy understanding how the county ran their operation,” Bayne said.
Both Bayne and Thomson said the facts about the capacity of the Charlotte County landfill haven’t changed much since Omni proposed its regional landfill.
The county’s 2050 growth plan still requires proposed landfill developers to demonstrate the county will need the extra capacity for garbage before 2030.
Thomson, in 2005, reported the county’s landfill had sufficient capacity to accommodate all its garbage until 2027, and had enough space to expand the landfill to accommodate the county beyond 2050.
Omni, however, had argued its landfill would be needed by surrounding counties, and the U.S. Supreme Court had barred regulations that prevent such regional commerce.
The county denied Omni’s proposal despite its argument.
Bayne said he worked with Geri Waksler, attorney for Calusa, to make a different argument. Calusa is not arguing the demand for landfill capacity by surrounding counties is justification for Charlotte County’s approval.
Calusa is arguing the county’s calculations for landfill capacity are flawed. Also, its argument that it has room to expand isn’t fair, because the county has no permits to expand, Bayne said.
Bayne pointed out when a developer starts a project, state rules require water and sewer permits upfront.
“We’re saying, ‘You can’t use that excuse,’” Bayne said. “I have to pay for these needs right then and there.”
Bayne said Thomson was hired after Calusa’s team drafted its analysis of Charlotte County’s landfill needs.
Thomson said he considered the potential conflict of interest before he accepted the Calusa job. He said he concluded the benefits for jobs and tax revenues posed by the landfill overcame potential environmental impacts in these “leaner” times.
“If you’re thinking about the future, this is exactly the location I would put another landfill,” he added.