Large mulch pile at site near businesses and homes in Lee County has been controversial and a court date on an effort by the county to have it cleared away could be set Monday. (Photo: Bill Smith)
People living near MW Horticulture Recycling off East Street in North Fort Myers may finally know Monday just how long it will be before Lee County can get before a judge to argue for a court order stopping work the neighbors say creates a nuisance.
For more than two years the property between East Street and Interstate 75 has been the scene of fires in huge piles of ground horticulture waste.
The county has sued, seeking an order to stop the work and clean up the site, but the case in front of Lee Circuit Court Judge Joseph Fuller has been pushed back by paperwork battles between lawyers and the stranglehold the COVID-19 crisis has had on many pending civil suits.
As they wait, residents and workers at nearby buildings say thick, acrid smoke, the product of spontaneous combustion fires in the piles, has created a health and safety menace.
Previously: Fire at North Fort Myers agricultural recycling facility temporarily closes Interstate 75
A fire remained burning Monday, May 1, 2020, in piles of agricultural debris at MW Horticulture Recycling in North Fort Myers. Smoke from the fire closed I-75 briefly.
Fort Myers News-Press
People who live and work near the 77-acre waste processing site say the smoke that sweeps the area when fire breaks out has gone beyond an inconvenience and may have contributed to a death.
Workers at retail and industrial businesses in the area say it makes it hard to go to work.
“Sometimes you can’t even drive on Bayshore Road. You are in the car with the AC on and you’re gasping for breath. It gets hard to see (Bayshore) road at times; there’s no other road though the area,” said Mary Martin, who works at a busy kitchen remodeling shop where customers come to select from large slates of granite.
“It’s like they control it and then it goes back on fire,” said co-worker Danny Gonzalez. “It happens every once in a while.”
The neighborhood near the mulch piles includes a wide variety of buildings from manufacturing facilities to bungalows.
“It gets on fire, and you’re smelling that. It gets in the cars, it gets in the house,” said resident Janet Damron, who said the smoke may have contributed to the death of her husband, who was afflicted with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“My husband had COPD, and he went into congestive failure, he went into congestive heart failure,” Damron said. “This is not right. You can smell this all over.”
The county sued Minus Forty Technologies Corp., which owns the land, and MW Horticulture Recycling Facility Inc., which leases the land and grinds the material into mulch to be used in gardens and for other uses.
The county claims that Minus Forty has a “duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe manner” and cannot delegate that responsibility. It also claims that unless the court issues an injunction stopping work and requiring a cleanup, the county will suffer “irreparable harm.”
The county’s request for a legal order to stop the work has been scheduled for an emergency hearing between Oct. 6 and Nov. 6. Judge Fuller has set a scheduling conference Monday to sort out when lawyers for the county, the recycling company and the landowner can be present.
Delays getting issues before judge
Getting the issues before the judge has been delayed for months. First, delays were caused by the coronavirus pandemic and dramatic scaling back on court hearings.
Later delays were caused when a county employee involved in the case was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized after a visit to the site. Other employees present for the visit to the site were ordered to quarantine for 14 days, which extended beyond an Aug. 26 hearing date.
Lee County’s attorney has estimated it would take at least three hours to present testimony and documents to make the case for an emergency temporary stop-work and cleanup order.
In court filings, Minus Forty denies a fire hazard has existed since July 2018 and denies knowledge of whether there have been fires on the property since July 20, 2018.
The North Fort Myers property started to be used for horticultural debris after Hurricane Irma, which swept through Southwest Florida in September 2017.
Throughout the years of battling with the county over the operation of the waste site, MW Horticulture owners Denise and Mark Houghtaling have raised the issue of their company’s contribution to the cleanup of debris left in the county after Irma hit.
MW Horticulture files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection
Facing fines and possible foreclosure, MW Horticulture has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The filing, made last Dec. 31, claims assets of $4.8 million and liabilities of $3.8 million.
Chapter 11 allows a company to continue operating while it reorganizes its financial affairs.
The company also is involved in a suit against the owners of companies that distribute construction equipment, claiming that it was sold or leased defective equipment.
Lee County issued several code violations for the site after a hearing examiner ruled in October 2018 that material on the site had to be removed.
Attorneys for Minus Forty Technologies and for MW Horticulture Recycling Inc. and MW Horticulture Recycling of North Fort Myers Inc. did not return calls requesting comment Friday afternoon.
The office of the Lee county attorney has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation and declined a request for comment on the MW Horticulture suit.
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