By Benjamin Paley, Hollywood Gazette and Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Hollywood’s plans to buy a former golf course and convert it into a nature preserve and passive public park are moving slowly amid concerns about the owner’s controversial decision to lay down a thick layer of lime sludge across the site.
The land is located just east of I-95, at 2727 Johnson St. Its purchase has been complicated because it is contaminated by arsenic, a problem common to ex-golf courses due to long-term use of herbicides and other chemicals to maintain grass and greens.
In August, a permit for a pilot “soil management test program” for the ex-Sunset Golf Course was approved by Broward County. City records say the program called for spreading “water treatment residuals from the lime softening material used in the water filtration process at the City of Fort Lauderdale’s Charles W. Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant to be blended into the soil on a portion of the site.”
The use of sludge, mostly calcium carbonate, is allowed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as clean fill to remediate “low levels of arsenic found in topsoil,” the records say. “If the results show success, then the property owner can seek to expand the blending of clean fill into the soil to remediate the entire site.”
The blended lime sludge is intended to dilute the arsenic contamination concentrations “to below residential target levels,” said David Vanlandingham, an Engineering Unit Supervisor who manages Broward County’s Cleanup and Waste Regulation Programs. “As they say, dilution is the solution to pollution.”
The owner is Richgreens, a limited partnership led by Richmond Italia, a Canadian businessman Richgreens obtained a county Environmental Assessment and Remediation (EAR) license that allowed it to conduct the pilot program on one-third of the 45.3-acre site.
Sludge amid negotiations
Richgreens has offered to sell the property – acquired in 2016 for $2 million – to the city for $14.3 million. Last month, after the extent of the environmental problems had become known, the city counter-offered $9 million. Negotiations are continuing.
Italia could not be reached for comment. An attorney at the Fort Lauderdale law firm that represented Italia when he incorporated Richgreens in 2016 – Hackleman, Olive & Judd – did not respond to a request for comment.
Property manager Shannon Stough also did not respond to requests for comment.
The old golf course property is particularly sensitive because it is low lying. “When you look at drainage in the area it’s a bull’s-eye for where water goes,” said Broward Commissioner Beam Furr, whose district includes the property.
While Richgreens secured the EAR license, it has yet to obtain a county surface water management license. That license, applied for on Jan. 10, is needed because a layer of up to 14 inches of sludge applied to the land might “alter the natural flow and level of surface water,” according to information put out by Furr’s office last week.
Carlos Adorisio, who oversees Broward’s surface water management licensing, said Monday that “we are not granting the license at this point because the information they submitted is not sufficient.”
Advise not taken
About two months ago, when Richgreens told the county it was going to begin spreading nonhazardous sludge at the site as part of the pilot program, county officials advised against it until the second license was secured. Nevertheless, the county had no power to stop it from proceeding, officials said.
County environmental officials recently sent Richgreens a “notice of a potential enforcement action” while a “notice of violation is prepared for the unauthorized fill placed on the site.”
Meanwhile, city residents are disturbed by what’s happening.
“The owner has taken down an enormous amount of trees. What was all kinds of green now looks like a desert,” said Furr. “People are taken aback by what this owner has done.”
On Jan. 22 City Manager Wazir Ishmael sent an interoffice memo to the city commission detailing events. He said that heavy rains on Dec. 22 caused flooding that led to resident concerns about sludge dissipating into adjacent canals. State, county and city inspections quickly determined that a containment wall on the northern edge of the property was breached, sending flood water into a canal.
The memo said Hollywood notified the owner “of an immediate need to shore up the barrier for other possible future weather events and to aerate the finger canal, which has been discolored due to the flow of material from the site.”
The engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer was hired to assess the situation. The memo says the firm reported that it is “common industry practice to use water treatment plant lime sludge” for remediation and that Florida has determined that it “is not a threat to public health or the environment.” Site tests for the pilot plan confirmed “that the materials being used are non-hazardous and are safe for land application.”
City resident Karen Caputo is president of the Friends of Hollywood. She is suspicious about the impact of the lime sludge.
In an email to the Hollywood Gazette, she wrote, “Mixing soil with pure lime sludge is preparation for foundations and roads, not for a park. The cost of preparing the land for a park after using this method for remediation of the arsenic is going to assure that we never have more than a dirty pond and an admixture nothing will grow in.”
Hollywood has been looking to buy the old golf course since last March, when city voters passed a $165-million general obligation bond to fund a variety of city-wide public improvement projects. That includes $64 million for parks, open spaces, recreational and cultural spaces – including the purchase of the former Sunset Golf Course.
Richgreens acquired the land in 2016. In 2017, the company attempted to open Hollywood Adventures Park. The Hollywood Gazette reported that November that it was meant to be “a multifaceted park intended to provide a variety of active and passive sports for kids and adults, from walking paths to paintball.”
The Planning and Zoning Board, however, voted not to approve a zoning variance.
The property is zoned as an open space district. According to the newspaper article, an open space district is “intended to provide standards for privately owned uses which are characterized by large open spaces. The intent is to preserve and protect areas having natural beauty and to mitigate the effects of development on the environment.”
Hollywood residents who are part of Save Former Sunset Golf Course want the city to use its power of eminent domain to purchase the land.
Commissioner Furr supports the city buying the property, but “I don’t want them to gouge the city.” He said the use of eminent domain would be appropriate.
“This would be a good candidate because of the public benefit that would come from being able to alleviate flooding,’’ Furr said. “Let it be a water storage area.”
This story was a collaboration between Florida Bulldog and the Hollywood Gazette