Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online news service

County News

Columbia County Economic Development
Weyerhaeuser-Plum Creek Mega Industrial Site:
14 Years Later – Still No Utility Plan  

Jim Poole, Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Director (2010)
County Chamber Director Jim Poole addresses the 2010 Plum Creek Summit | Observer photo

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – In a process that began in 2006, Columbia County modified its Land Use Plan to include a mixed-use development of 2,593.96 acres to accommodate Plum Creek's development of an industrial – residential megasite. Fourteen years later, there is still no utility plan.

Part I
The History of Plumb Creek in Columbia County

Beginning in 2006, Plum Creek Land Company (Plum Creek) geared up for a change to the Columbia County Land Development Regulations for what is now called the North Florida Mega Industrial Park.

Through the years, the property went through many name variations: the Lake City JV Property; Hurricane Bay; the Inland Port; the Port of the Saggy Bra; the Intermodal Park; and finally, with the takeover of Plumb Creek by Weyerhaeuser, the North Florida Mega Industrial Park.

In 2007, Columbia County (the County) applied for a change in its Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Three years later, on March 18, 2010, the County officially adopted the land use change on what was then known as Hurricane Bay. Hurricane Bay was designated a Mixed Use District (MUD), which enabled the property to be used for residential, non-residential (industrial), and open space.

The 2009 Hurricane Bay land use explanation graphic. So far, there are no jobs.

As approved in 2010, the MUD was mandated to "be in locations where central water and wastewater facilities are available."

The MUD also required that "All development shall be required to be served by central water and wastewater services provided by a public or private entity."

If the County had added the Mega Industrial Site to its Designated Urban Development Area (DUDA), it would have had the authority to "coordinate planning efforts with the municipalities [read Lake City] located within the county for the provision of centralized potable water, sanitary sewer, [and] drainage improvements."

In 2011, the megasite's lack of inclusion in the DUDA was overcome in the Development Agreement between Plum Creek and the County.

On November 17, 2011, Plum Creek's Allison McGrath, the face of the Megasite, made a presentation to the County 5. To the dismay of everyone, after a decade on the project, Weyerhaeuser let her go when it took over Plum Creek.

The Agreement was for one year, and then on a month to month basis. The Agreement designated the County Economic Development Department "as its exclusive representative in dealing with agencies and governmental entities to obtain utilities, [and] infrastructure..."

A couple of days ago, your reporter requested from the County a copy of the Development Agreement between the County and Plum Creek. So far, no one has been able to find it or knows what is in it.

Recently (2019-2020), powers in both Lake City and Columbia County have designated former City Manager Wendell Johnson as the scapegoat for everything wrong in both the Plum Creek utility issues and almost every other issue confronting Lake City.

City Manager Wendell Johnson: Planning for the Future

City Manager Wendell JohnsonOn December 10, 2013, after a year-and-a-half of meetings, then City Manager Wendell Johnson worked up a proposal to provide wastewater utilities for the Mega Site, then known as the Intermodal.

City Manager Johnson's proposal letter to Allison McGrath, then of Plum Creek, wrote, "City potable water [drinking water] and natural gas utility service is currently available to the site for "immediate” and “build out” capacity demands."

Mr. Johnson recognized the City's wastewater limitations. He provided a short term plan for Plum Creek, advising it of the available capacity, and proposed a cost-share program that would have provided the mega site with 1,000,000 gallons per day (gpd) upon the completion of the 3,00,000 gpd Kicklighter WWTP.

The total estimated cost was $7.2 million.

Mr. Johnson also suggested a proportionate fair share analysis. This would have reimbursed Plum Creek for a share of the construction costs and also a "fair-share cost allocation, from City collected sewer-system charges, tap fees, or other utility impact fees generated from NFIP end users."

The City had already arranged for financing of the $18,000,000 WWTP. Plum Creek charges were for building the infrastructure to transport the waste [pipes and pumps].

Had Plum Creek not wanted everything for free and agreed to the proposal, wastewater treatment would have been available at the site about five years ago. 

The Observer has not been able to locate any record anywhere of the County supporting City Manager Johnson's proposal.

So much for the Development Agreement.

It has been common knowledge for some time when it comes to infrastructure Plum Creek-Weyerhaeuser doesn't want to pay for the infrastructure for its megasite.

Jesse Quillen
Jesse Quillen

Both former County Economic Development Director Jesse Quillen and former City Manager Wendell Johnson were on the same page when it came to Plum Creek contributing to the mega industrial site's utility infrastructure.

Yesterday, Jesse Quillen said, "The owner should be responsible and the primary driver of development, including infrastructure. Additionally, if they can partner with government, that is advantageous. The owner should be at the table, leading the conversation."

City Manager Wendell Johnson said, "I was always a proponent of Plum Creek contributing and participating in the financing of all the infrastructure needs out there. I didn't feel that the City was in a position to fund it out of our Utility Fund."

Mr. Johnson continued, "Plum Creek just never felt that they were going to have to do anything, other than let it take its course and the funding would come through the state or the feds, or the County and the City. That's just the way it was."

Commissioner Ronald Williams addresses the Inland Port "Future Is Now" Summit in 2010. Observer photo

Free Money:  Over $13 Mil in State Grants for the Megasite

After years of trying, Plum Creek finally had a route approved by the National Forest Service and FDOT to build a rail spur into the megasite.

In February 2018, Columbia County was awarded a Florida Jobs Growth Grant for $3.1 mil to build a rail spur into the megasite. Columbia County taxpayers will pay to maintain the rail spur.

In October 2018, the County received another Jobs Growth Grant, this time for $10.2 mil for a wastewater treatment plant.

The County finally got around to designing the plant earlier this year. After it is built, the County is to turn the plant over to Lake City. The grant was for $10.2 mil. With all the delays, it is now estimated to cost $13.2 mil. The 500,000 gal per day (gpd) design is already anticipated to be stretched to the limit. The engineers recently told the County that in 5 years another plant would have to be built.

It is not clear how the County is going to fund the $3 mil additional cost or down the road fund a new WWTP.

Part II - Big Trouble
14 Years Into the Plum Creek Project
Lake City Says it Can't Provide Water

It turns out that the County, in its quest to round up business for the Plum Creek megasite, had come across a prospect that needed a source of raw, untreated water for its business – a lot of water.

During a series of recent meetings between the County economic development people and the City Manager and Mayor Witt, City Manager Helfenberger advised the County that the City, even though it has a well field down the road from the megasite, could not provide raw industrial water.

Among other things, providing raw water would require the installation of pipes to get the water to the megasite from the City's present well field. During the 14 years of site development, raw water use was never on the table.

On October 29, 2020, Interim County Manager David Kraus sent a memo to the County 5, which said in relevant part:

Recently, we learned that the City is unable to provide water for industrial use at the megasite. The City has limited capacity on its present Consumptive Use Permit (CUP), and the water main cannot handle an increase in demand for an industrial use.

The County can pursue a Consumptive Use Permit from the Water Management District "to provide raw water for industrial use within the NFMIP [Plum Creek-Weyerhaeuser mega site]."

The City Council was not advised of this situation.

This is a new situation for a potential client for the privately-owned megasite. As far as anyone knows, the client has not agreed to locate at the megasite.

November 5, 2020, at the County 5
The Megasite Water Issues Publically Announced
More Free Money for Plum Creek-Weyerhaeuser

On November 5, 2020, at the regularly scheduled meeting of The 5, David Kraus announced, "The City has informed us that they are not capable at this time to provide water for industrial customers. They're able to provide potable for drinking and toilets, but they cannot provide water for industrial use."

David Kraus
Interim County Manager David Kraus listens to the County 5. (file)

Mr. Kraus continued, "[This] puts us in a situation of we cannot attract industrial clients unless we have water for them. So we are asking for direction from the board: should we proceed with getting a consumptive use permit and possibly going into the business of providing raw water to industrial clients, or how does the board wish to proceed. It doesn't make a lot of sense to build a $10 million sewer plant if you don't have water."

It's really a $13.2 mil plant. Mr. Kraus did not announce that no one had ever asked for a source of raw water before.

Your reporter, who is also a property owner and resident of Columbia County, addressed the County 5.

"Weyerhaeuser is one of the major corporations in America. Why isn't Weyerhaeuser looking for a consumptive use permit? This is private property. The industrial water that is used on the private property that's owned by Weyerhaeuser is going to the clients that they bring in, maybe with the help of Columbia County. It's their clients. They get the rent. They get the profits. They get everything else. What are we looking at to get water? Somebody has to pay for a consumptive use permit and get studies done. Why is Columbia County paying for that on a piece of private property? Why isn't Weyerhaeuser paying for the improvement to their property?"

County Chairman Toby Witt answered, "The permit for raw water is for our future utility, not for Weyerhaeuser."

Your reporter followed up, "The item says it's for Plum Creek [Weyerhaeuser] for industrial water."

County Chairman Toby Witt (file)

Chairman Witt responded, "The permit is to draw water for utilities out there... It is going to be provided by some form of government."

Chairman Witt mentioned a letter that the City had sent. The City never sent a letter. The word came down at a meeting. There is nothing in writing from Lake City. The City Council is in the dark.

Chairman Witt said, "We either sit on our hands and lose economic development or we do something. And this is the first step."

Commissioner Rocky Ford mentioned that utilities provide water for industrial and private customers.

Your reporter pointed out to Commissioner Ford that the material provided by the County said the industrial water was only for the Weyerhaeuser property.

Chairman Witt added, "It's for a utility. Weyerhaeuser is going to purchase the water from some government agency."

Mr. Kraus added, "Is not for a specific industry. It's for industry in general."

Your reporter followed up, "It's for industry at Plum Creek."

Mr. Kraus responded, "Right."

Commissioner Ronald Williams said, "The State of Florida have already put almost $20 million into that piece of property, private property. It's a joint effort between the State of Florida, the Board of County Commissioners, and the owner of the property."

Commissioner Murphy (file)

Commissioner Tim Murphy called out The 5 for not leveling with the public, "Say it like it is. Suwannee River Water Management indicated we got a lot better chance of gettin' the CUP (Consumptive Use Permit) than the City of Lake City does."

Mr. Murphy said the County should go forward and do whatever it needed to do. "Let's get it rollin'."

Mr. Witt asked if that was a motion.

Mr. Murphy said it was.

Part III - Post Meeting
City Manager Helfenberger
Interim County Manager David Kraus

November 6, City Man Helfenberger wants a development agreement

According to City Manager Joe Helfenberger, Plum Creek-Weyerhaeuser is not opposed to being annexed into the City provided there is a development agreement between the City and County to develop the site.

Mr. Helfenberger said, "I'm willing to do any kind of utility extension provided they have a revenue stream."

City Manager Joe Helfenberger
City Manager Joe Helfenberger (file)

Your reporter asked, "That means they have to get annexed into the City?

Mr. Helfenberger: "Yup."

Your reporter: "Don't you have water going to the megasite?"

Mr. Helfenberger: "We have water going to the prison, but it is at capacity. We are at our consumptive use permit limit."

Your reporter asked, "You're limited out?"

Mr. Helfenberger answered, "We can provide roughly 750,000 gpd additional from what we are doing now. We just signed an agreement with Jones Edmund [utility engineers] to do a study."

November 7, Interim County Manager David Kraus, "A $2.5 mil back of the envelope estimate."

Your reporter mentioned that no specifics were given to the County 5 regarding the City's position that it cannot provide water.

Mr. Kraus said, "They have 700,000 gal left on their consumptive use permit before they hit the max. They have a water line that runs along US 90, which we were told 2 or 3 weeks ago, doesn't have the capacity to add anybody to it."

Your reporter: "There was a letter involved with that, right?"

Mr. Kraus answered, "I never got a letter."

Your reporter: "So they never put anything in writing?"

Mr. Kraus:  "No. We had several meetings with them, with Joe [City Manager Joe Helfenberger] and the Mayor, both. They would provide potable water, and we would provide raw water. We got this from the City last week. We always assumed the City was going to provide the water – always."

Your reporter: "The County assumed the City was going to provide all the water out there?"

Mr. Kraus, "We did. They are the local provider. That's why when we decided to build a sewer plant. We did it with the City."

Your reporter: "Nobody at the County 5 asked how much it was going to cost or where the County was going to get the money?"

Mr. Kraus: "$2.5 million is a back of the envelope estimation. I asked the County engineer what it would cost. Before we move too much further, we are going to have to get a real price."

Your reporter: "How is the County going to pay for it?"

Mr. Kraus:  "Part of my job is to figure out how to pay for it. Before we do anything, I've got to find the money. It's not in the budget."

Your reporter, "By the way, it appeared the motion by Commissioner Murphy was, 'Let's get rollin'." Do you know what that means?"

Mr. Kraus answered, "I'm going to have to listen to the tape."

November 9, Suwannee River Water Management Water District

On November 9, your reporter spoke with Engineer Monica Schott of the Suwannee River Water Management District.

Suwannee River Water Management District logoThe inquiry was simple: "Could Weyerhaeuser apply for a consumptive use industrial water permit?"

Ms. Schott's answer was just as simple: "Yes."

Ms. Schott sent your reporter a "Water Use Permit Application," the "Water Use Permit Industrial / Commercial Use Supplemental Form B," and a "Selection of Monitoring Form."

Indeed, Weyerhaeuser can apply for its own Industrial Water Consumptive Use Permit.

Your reporter speaks with Councilman Elect Todd Sampson

Todd Sampson
Todd Sampson at City Hall (file)

On November 9, your reporter mentioned to Todd Sampson, Councilman Elect of Lake City, that the City could not provide water to the Plum Creek-Weyerhaeuser megasite.

Mr. Sampson said, "That's ridiculous. We are the area's utility provider."

Your reporter asked, "Did you know about this?"

Mr. Sampson answered, "Thursday was the first I heard about it. This hasn't been brought before the City Council. It was not the Council's decision."

Mr. Sampson continued, "The first thing I am going to do after I am sworn in is ask the City Utility Director to present a full report to the City Council at its next meeting. The Council needs to know the status of the City's utilities."

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.