SAN CARLOS PARK, Fla. — Crews are still on the scene at MW Horticulture for the fire that's been ongoing since April 10.
MW Horticulture was a topic at the Lee County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday as many residents and business owners are upset with the smoke and want to know what's happening next for businesses in the area.
Last week, we've covered the perspective of firefighters about the conditions and details on the millions of gallons of water that's been used, but the fire has really had an impact on the entire community.
When the fire began the power was turned off for three days and a nearby business owner explains how the fire affected workers. "During that time we were not operational which means our employees were not able to come to work and they weren't able to work to feed their families," says President of Suncoast Furniture, Rajiv Varshney.
Suncoast, a manufacturing business near the location of the MW Horticulture fire, says there are a ton of different fabrics and sewing taking place as the smell of smoke fills the facility.
"Customers just stay away so that's how it impacts our business. We made a delivery on the East Coast of Florida and when we did the customers could smell the smoke in the furniture," says Varshney.
Not only has he lost business but Varshney says, "My biggest concerns are primarily with the homeowners in the area and the kids at the school they've done nothing to deserve this."
The Communications Director for Lee County Government provided the following information:
Lee County has three pending cases against MW Horticulture and their landlord Minus Forty Technologies, which recently changed its corporate name to Beresford Capital Group. All of Lee County’s litigation involves the property located off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers.
Details from Lee County states that 19CA5166 is against MW and Minus Forty and alleges, among other things, that they are violating the zoning restrictions on the property and that the horticultural waste constitutes a nuisance accumulation as defined by Lee County ordinance. A trial date is tentatively set for January 2023.
Lee County conducted a hearing on its motion for preliminary injunction on December 10, 2021, and Circuit Court Judge Joseph C. Fuller denied it.
The injunction would have given MW and Minus Forty 30 days to clean up the property before Lee County would enter the property and remove all horticultural waste with the final bill being sent to MW and Minus Forty.
Lee County appealed the denial of the injunction to the Second District Court of Appeal, which is still pending. 2D22-00358 is the appellate case number assigned to Lee County’s appeal of the injunction denial.
The parties have fully briefed this matter and the appellate court has granted the County’s request for oral argument. A date for oral argument has not yet been scheduled.
20CA2787 is a foreclosure action against MW and Minus Forty. The Lee County Hearing Examiner ordered that Minus Forty be fined $200 per day since July 5, 2019, which is recorded as a lien on the property. The fine is for failing to fully mitigate the nuisance accumulation on Tract D of the property.
As of April 15, that fine totals $203,000. Florida Statute section 162.09(3) allows the county to foreclose on its lien or sue to recover the money owed in a fine plus judgment if the lien is unpaid for three months.
The trial is scheduled for May of 2023.
Lee County has no pending litigation against MW Horticulture for its Southern site near Alico Road due to an agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The agreement was for Lee County to pursue the Northern site and for DEP to litigate the Southern site.
"It’s very frustrating on Lee County’s side," Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said. "We have been trying to take care of residents and neighbors for the past four years with this nuisance that’s been happening. It’s unfortunate the business owners continue to disobey the orders of the past of the stop-work orders and continue to bring in materials to the sites to add more fuel to the fire."
Pendergrass says the issues with MW Horticulture began in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
"They wanted to help us out with Irma and the debris. That material was taken in and disposed of but now all the new material is not from the hurricane, it’s from taking in money and keeping money for themselves, and not paying their bills.
"We’re hoping people will see what’s happening and people will not bring material there," he continued, "So we’re asking everybody in the landscaping business and tree removal business not to take the material there. It’s causing a disturbance to the community."
San Carlos Park Fire Department says complaints come in daily as crews remain at the site around the clock.
"Everybody wants to have it closed and limit the issues that are taking place," said San Carlos Park Fire Chief David Cambareri. "The fire department can do our part and DEP does their part. The county does theirs.
"It’s a hard job and since April 10 we’ve had crews out there every day, and it weighs on each and every person."
Denise Houghtaling, owner of MW Horticulture, put out a Facebook message saying they apologize to the local community who have had to deal with the smoke and traffic issues. It goes on to mention the county and legal issues, saying there have been "no code violations against the south yard."
We reached out to her and she replied by saying she needs to refer us to the attorney for any further comments. We also reached out to her attorney through phone and email and have not heard back.