W - HS Chamber James S5000856 copyHigh Springs Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Gloria James said it was a surprise and an honor to receive the award.

HIGH SPRINGS – The High Springs Chamber of Commerce honored Gloria James as Citizen of the Year for her work in several different clubs, area groups and organizations. She is a long-time resident of the city with a long family history in the community.

James is Chair of the High Springs Planning Board, President of AARP, Assistant Election Clerk, High Springs Senior Citizen Gathering Secretary, and member of the High Springs Chamber, the Community Development Board and the Mebane Alumni Association. She is also Missionary Vice President of Allen Chapel Church and a substitute teacher for the Alachua County School Board. Her uncle, a member of the Davis family, was the first African American conductor for the railroad in High Springs and her family shared their family history as the 2012 Pioneer Family during Pioneer Days.

Other nominees were Suzie Ann Clark, Barbara Martin and Donna and Henry Mogler, all of whom have significantly contributed to the city as well, said Chamber President Sandra Webb. “It is difficult to choose just one person to be Citizen of the Year when so many people do so much for this community,” said Webb.

The award was presented during the High Springs Chamber of Commerce Banquet held Friday, July 19, 2013, at the Family Life Center, St. Madeleine Catholic Church on U.S. Hwy. 441 in High Springs.

Newly elected chamber board members were also introduced during the banquet. Members include Sandra Webb, president; Scott Thomason, vice president; Barbara Martin, treasurer; Vondla Sullivan, secretary; Eyvonne Andrews, economics; Dot Harvey, communication; Betsy Thomason, events manager; Carol Doherty, membership; Donna Mogler, past president; and Tom Weller, past-past president.

With the theme of the “Wild, Wild West,” more than 130 chamber members and their families were treated to a banquet of pulled pork, fried fish, barbecued chicken, potato salad and beans prepared on site by Scott Thomason of the Santa Fe Elks Club. Chamber member Dot Harvey prepared an amazing array of desserts including cobblers of all kinds and three different types of brownies, along with delectable cowboy beans.

The Great Outdoors Restaurant donated beverages, salad and rolls and brought along one of their professional bartenders and Head Chef Carol Doherty to make sure everyone had their perfect drink of choice and excellent food and service.

Tim and Robin True received an award for the best wild west-themed costumes of the night and Natalie Nicole Green and The Little Bit More Band entertained during the evening with perfect harmonies and great music.

Webb said she was pleased with the turnout and presented dozens of door prizes during the night with the help of Barbara Martin. “We had a great team to put on this event,” said Webb. “All our board members and volunteers helped tremendously,” she said. “I especially want to thank Barbara Martin and Jim Bryant for going above and beyond for signs, decorations, etc. and St. Madeleine’s Catholic Church for letting the chamber use their facilities for our event.”

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Wes Skiles is remembered by many for his pioneering work in underwater photography and filmmaking as well as environmenetal concerns.

HIGH SPRINGS – Underwater caves and passages were his second home.

Born in 1958, Florida native Wesley C. Skiles, better known as Wes, would be described by his friends and family as an explorer, an educator and a skilled storyteller whose passion was cave diving and learning about Florida's waterways. Sunday marks the third anniversary of his death while cave diving, but the legacy of the former High Springs resident is maintained by the people who knew him.

Wes was well known for his cave diving adventures and exploring Florida’s springs.

“It was like his church," said his wife, Terri Skiles.

Terri met Wes around 1980, when she was working a part-time job at a store and sold him a camera. They were married in 1981, and had two children, Nathan, 26, and Tessa, 20.

Wes was a pioneer in his photography techniques, said friend and water conservationist, Mark Long,

"He was the first photographer to get really good pictures in underwater caves," he said.

Wes' lighting techniques in particular brought vibrancy to his photographs of submerged caverns, Long said. "The cave pictures of old were kind of dull. He brought them to life."

He got into photography to show the world the size and clarity of what he saw regularly, Terri said.

"People didn't believe them when he told them how big these underground cave systems were," she said. "He loved to show what he had learned by picture taking or filmmaking,"

Wes also used his photos as proof that there were issues with the water.

"He was one of the first people to recognize problems with the springs. To prove what he was talking about, he started taking pictures," Terri said. Wes started taking water samples and talking to state officials about pollution in the 1980s. He used his skills as a diver to advance aquatic research.

By the end of his life, Wes Skiles had received awards and accolades for his photography. National Geographic featured him several times, in addition to naming him "Explorer of the Year" in 2011, the year after his death. Wes participated in a National Geographic expedition to Antarctica, where he was the first human to set foot on Iceberg B-15, the largest recorded iceberg in the world.

In 2004, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded him the Regional Emmy award for his work directing the documentary “Water's Journey,” which tracked the path of water through Florida's aquifer, rivers and springs.

By the age of 16, Wes had drawn maps of the Florida aquifer, the network of underground waterways running beneath the state.

"I have those maps to this day," said Terri Skiles.

With only a high school diploma, he taught himself everything he could about the watershed systems in North Florida.

"He was always learning," Terri said. “He loved to share what he knew from experience.”

Wes was passionate about the environment, but he wouldn't call himself an environmentalist, she said. "He would call himself a conservationist."

Ross Ambrose, from High Springs, worked with Wes on the "Water's Journey" documentary as a producer.

"I think he was one of Florida's most passionate advocates for protecting and understanding our springs," he said. "Wes' education efforts were very encompassing."

Wes' friend, Mark Long, was involved with the documentary as well, acting as a model in front of the camera.  

"It was a way to make people care about their water, how valuable it is, and how to protect it," Long said. "He had incredible knowledge on what's going underground with our water. By the end of his life, he was lecturing people with Ph.D.s on this stuff."

Wes recognized how everyone contributes to a problem without making them feel guilty, Ambrose said. "Very few people aren't part of the problem, you can't look at things in black and white and good and bad," he said. Ambrose remembered several people talking to Wes about concrete plants polluting the Suwannee River.

"He looked back at the people and said 'didn't you just build a house?'"

Wes encouraged people to find solutions, rather than to focus on the blame, he said.

Through his cave diving experience, Wes noticed pollution, algae blooms and problems with water levels. He started giving presentations at schools in the late 1980s, and by the accounts of people who knew him, he could talk to children, professors and government officials alike.

"He was a great communicator; he could talk to anybody," said Long.  

"He was a crusader," said friend Jim Woods, owner of the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs. "Early on, he saw the problems that we are now experiencing."

Although he had an impact in raising awareness for aquatic issues, his friends and family also remember him for his personality.

"He always wanted to be a kid," Terri said.

"He could have a business meeting planned, but if the surfing conditions were good in Jacksonville, he would go surfing," Ambrose said. "He very much believed in taking advantage of opportunities. You could have a business meeting anytime. You couldn't always go surfing."

"I've never once seen the guy in a bad mood," Woods said. "He always had a smile on his face."

Wes Skiles died June 21, 2010, while diving off the coast of Boynton Beach. His friends found his body at the bottom of a reef.

Despite being a scientist, adventurer, photographer and environmental advocate, his wife considers his family to be his biggest achievement. The couple went diving together many times over the course of their marriage that lasted nearly 30 years.

"He just gave me the best life I could have," she said. 

"He made it an adventure for me."

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HIGH SPRINGS – Impact fees remain a hot issue in High Springs after a heated city commission meeting July 11. The matter came under scrutiny during the public comments portion of the meeting by some members of the public who had come to address the ordinance to set water and sewer system impact fees.

The commission had unanimously tabled the matter at the start of the meeting. City Attorney Scott Walker suggested the item be tabled to the July 25meeting, since a study that was the basis for Ordinance 2013-05, had been reviewed and revised by the city’s engineering firm, Mittauer & Associates, and only returned to his office for final city staff review the afternoon of the meeting.

Walker applauded City Manager Ed Booth for performing the initial study and Mittauer for their hard work on the project. He said if they had gone to an engineering firm to conduct the study, it would have cost $25,000. Mittauer agreed to review the study and make recommendations at a cost of $2,000-$2,500 according to Walker.

While Booth’s suggested impact fee levels were already one-third less than the fees currently on the books, which can be as high as $9,000 per household depending on meter size, Walker said Mittauer had suggested even lower impact fees in one area.

When Booth delivered his study in March, he said, “Although the impact fees were set at an earlier time at $9,000, the city has not collected those fees in the past.” In 2010, the city issued a moratorium on impact fees, which has now expired leaving the higher impact fees in effect.

After the meeting, Booth said that most households have ¾-inch meters. For that size meter, he said, “the sewer impact fee is currently $3,524 and the water impact fee is $3,111, but the impact fees go up for larger meters and can reach as high as $9,000.”

Rick Howe, builder/developer for Oak Ridge Subdivision, located on U.S. Hwy. 441, addressed commissioners complaining that the city had allowed “zero stakeholder input” into the process. He said he had asked former mayors Larry Travis and Dean Davis and this commission to allow for citizen and stakeholder input, to no avail.

He further said that he had requested a copy of the ordinance for review and had been told he could have one at the meeting, which he still had not received. Howe said he was the number one builder/developer in the city and had pulled more permits than any other developer and still was denied input into the ordinance.

Howe said that many of the homes he built were financed by groups such as USDA with only a $1,000 down payment, adding “$3,000 in additional costs did make a difference” to those people. “A lot of people who depend on this town’s growth and depend on a sustainable growth will be impacted by this decision,” he said. He expressed concern that the ordinance might pass in the middle of summer, when many people are out of town and may never be brought back before stakeholders and citizens. He admonished the commission to work with stakeholders and citizens to get the issue resolved.

He also took issue with the way in which the study was done saying, “It is supposed to be conducted by an independent third party.”

He added that he would like to be able to have a dialogue with people who may want to discuss this additional $3,000 cost of their home, but did not feel adequately prepared to do so without more involvement in the process itself.

Mayor Sue Weller said the city is operating under an ordinance with a much higher rate than what is being proposed by the new ordinance. “I have no objection to having a workshop if that’s what the commission decides to do,” she commented, “but the longer it takes to pass this, the higher the rate builders will have to pay.”

Kara Bolton, President of Builders Association of North Central Florida, applauded the commission for their 2010 decision to pass a moratorium, saying that High Springs recognized the need for relief and to provide economic stability during a difficult time.

Bolton suggested the commission extend the moratorium until the new fee structure could be implemented. She also requested that payment of the impact fees be deferred until issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy, something which Booth explained was already included in the ordinance.

Bolton was pleased that the ordinance included an affordable housing exemption, but that builders encourage the city to draft language in the ordinance to update annually the income and price limits as published by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, the state agency that administers the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) Program.

Tommy MacIntosh, a local real estate broker, supported Bolton’s recommendations and asked the commission to conduct a workshop to “give citizens more of a chance to be involved.” He also encouraged extension of the moratorium. “Take the time to do this right and do it smartly,” he said.

City manager Booth said a moratorium was unlikely.

“We are already more than $200,000 in the hole on impact fees.”

By way of explanation Booth said, “The city borrowed $450,000 to design the sewer plant and other engineering projects. We had $244,000 in a CD that represented the impact fees we had already collected. The design of the sewer plant and other engineering projects cost the city $450,000, which was paid to Jones Edmunds & Associates.”

“The city didn’t have the money, so we borrowed it in a bridge loan from Republic Bank. When it was decided not to do Phase 4 of the sewer system, the bank became concerned that the city wasn’t going to get the bonding money to pay for the bridge loan, so they took $200,000 of the $244,000 and put it against the loan the city had made,” he said.

“That leaves us at the present time having to pay off $250,000 which represents impact fee monies we should have been collecting, but did not because of the moratorium,” he said.

Booth said also, “At the present time, the commission has not set a date for a workshop to discuss this issue any further. We will be holding the first public hearing on this issue at the July 25 meeting and will take whatever input the public has to offer at that time.”

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W - Waldo pipes DSCF7523The Waldo to GRU wastewater pipeline is under construction along Waldo Road.

WALDO – For 25 years Waldo has depended on the same municipal wastewater treatment plant for waste collection and treatment. However to avoid fines upwards of $10,000 per day, the city will now go through Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) for wastewater treatment and disposal.

The city’s wastewater treatment plant was unable to meet updated standards that were set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, FDEP, and has since received several violation notices.

“Waldo City Council held public meetings seeking a way to correct this problem in the most cost effective, environmentally sound and long-term manner,” said Kim Worley, Waldo’s city manager.

The final solution was to connect Waldo’s wastewater collection system to the GRU system for treatment using an 11-mile force main pipeline and to decommission the old wastewater plant. The project is being funded using a combination of a grant and to the City of Waldo from USDA Rural Development, totaling $5,364,300.

The city will have 40 years to pay off the loan portion. Since it is mandated by law that the loan must be repaid using revenues obtained through utility charges, residents will see an increase in monthly utility bills.

“For basic water services, the increase will be approximately $19,” said Worley. “The city has not had a rate increase since 2008, but it can’t be avoided for the new system.”

Residents attending last week’s city council meeting were not the only ones opposed to an increase in the utility rates.

“Listen, I know no one wanted to see an increase, but at the end of the day we had to raise rates for the future,” said Vice Chair Irvin Jackson.

When the new system is up and running, the city will not only be able to provide wastewater services at the current usage levels, but will have the capacity to double usage levels, which will accommodate population growth, before having to make any required additional expansion of the system with GRU.

“At the end of the day we had no choice but to make a change,” said Rick Pisano, city councilman. “A $10,000 a day fine? We’d have been broke in a week.”

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NEWBERRY – Local residents and Newberry city commissioners heard a sampling of improvements in store for Newberry’s newly opened Nations Park.   The commission held a July 9 workshop with Nations Park’s architect, manager, the city’s recreation director, and legal department to review contract obligations and discuss future options.

Architect Paul Stressing talked about the current and future renovations that will contribute to giving Nations fields the feel of a championship stadium, such as lowering the walls to 3 or 4 feet and expanding the seating area. The plan is to open not only the parent seating area and install fans there, but also open up from the foul line to the infield.

Nations has opened up its fields to softball players in order to start to utilize the off-season months, and after trial and error, has discovered how to convert the baseball pitching mound for softball.

While no violations regarding the park’s operation and contracts currently exist, some important clarifications were discussed.

There has been some concern that the park has been slow to attract teams to fill tournament dates. Richard Blalock, Newberry recreation director said the park has a ramp-up period that will last until December 2014. During this time, the contract stipulates that Nations will show a good faith effort to start getting tournaments and teams locked in he said.

The contract requires 12 week-long tournaments, meaning that tournaments must run for at least three consecutive days, Blalock said.

Also, tournaments are described as consisting of a minimum of 40 teams with the objective of drawing in around a minimum of 400 to 500 persons to the park to stimulate the local economy.

Considering Newberry is not considered a vacation destination, the Nations team is putting together a tournament package with Disney that would include incentives such as discounts. Options under consideration include the scheduling of events, which may change to coincide with other activities. Ending tournaments on a Wednesday would give traveling families the rest of the week and weekend to venture to Orlando.

One good faith effort the Nations team has made is dropping the tournament entry fee to around $500. Another incentive available for teams by next summer is the waiving of entry fees if the team brings an umpire.

Every effort is being made to get teams, because once that happens Nations will be in full swing with the Columbus Day Classic, Halloween Bash and September Slugfest tournaments, according to Newberry officials.

“If everything works the way we want in the fall, basically there will be activity for about eight straight weekends,” Blalock said.

Commissioner Joe Hoffman discussed the concept of an organization that would connect Nations Park and the Easton Sports Complex with the larger sports industry to assist in marketing and arranging events. For example, Nations would have the first look at schedules of events to ensure optimum opportunities to bring in events and create the associated jobs.

Another plan to enhance the park’s exposure is a fall ball travel league. Nations will market coast to coast to attract teams from cities such as Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Tampa, Orlando and Daytona. By booking teams from different regions, the competing teams won’t play the same opponents from their own backyards over and over again.

“We address the issues, and move forward to examine all possibilities, which is what we will have to do for the next 12 to 24 months,” said Blalock.

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W - Bio diesel - DSC 09561L-R: Mike Keim demonstrates Alachua County's biodiesel production equipment as county Hazardous Waste Coordinator Kurt Seaburg and Florida House Representative Clovis Watson, Jr. observe.

ALACHUA COUNTY ­– A single machine sitting in a waste collection center has sat unused for several months now. It was meant to save the county money, and after a successful legal battle, it might continue to do so.

The county held a ceremony Monday to commemorate the resumption of biodiesel fuel production at the Hazardous Waste Collection Center.

The fuel is made from waste cooking oil brought in by residents and businesses to avoid clogging up their drains, so the county spends no money collecting it. It costs about $2 per gallon to make, said Chris Bird, director of the county's Environmental Protection Department. The fuel is used for county vehicles and emergency generators.

Last December, Alachua County stopped making the biodiesel because of legal requirements which weighed the county down with excessive paperwork and bureaucracy, said John Mousa, of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. A bill in the state legislature, with the support of state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and state Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., D-Alachua, eliminated that requirement for local governments and school districts.

"It created such a tremendous burden," Mousa said.

Bird, along with Rick Drummond, acting county manager, as well as the three state legislators who supported the bill and other members of county government gave speeches thanking the county's legislative delegation for their work in getting the law changed.

"We feel like we're hitting the reset button," Bird said about the reopening.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official resumption of the facility.

Rep. Perry said he hoped the reopening of the facility would lead to new technologies and innovation in the area.

Sen. Bradley said the situation is a win-win, helping the environment by preventing waste cooking oil from clogging up sewage systems, while also saving the county money.

Mike Keim, an environmental specialist at the Hazardous Waste Collection Center, gave a demonstration on how the machine that converts the waste to fuel works. A batch takes about three days to make, but one was already finished. The county hopes to make about 200 gallons per month, Mousa said.

The continued production of biodiesel will help the county move forward in being efficient and environmentally friendly, said state Sen. Bradley.

"Let's keep the momentum," he said.

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HAWTHORNE – The City of Hawthorne will no longer be exploring the possibility of accepting a brownfield designation for several areas throughout the city.

Initially the City Commission decided to wait until the interpretation of legislation from the state to make a ruling on potential brownfield sites. Following a change in the legislation, the recent proposal for a brownfield designation in Hawthorne was decided to not benefit the city after all.

“These things are hard to explain really; they are very complicated, but in the end it just would not have benefited Hawthorne,” said Mike Castine, a planner with the Alachua County Growth Management Department.

The city had been working with Orlando based PPM Consultants Inc., to possibly setup the brownfield program in Hawthorne. City Manager Ellen Vause worked with Charles Ray, the vice president in charge of the Government Initiatives/Brownfield Programs with PPM.

“I am still committed to working with Ellen and the City of Hawthorne to facilitate economic redevelopment,” Ray said.

Throughout the process, Ray and PPM looked to provide consulting to the city over areas that could receive the designation, as well as assist in writing a grant application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I will recommend state brownfields designation again when a site in Hawthorne meets the requirements of the new designation rules,” Ray said.

For now Hawthorne will not be pursuing the possibility of the brownfield designation, however in the future the city may find it beneficial to once again consider the program.

“This is something that could come back around as an issue in several months, or several years,” said Castine. “But for now it just does not serve to benefit the city.”

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