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MW Horticulture, Lee County head to bankruptcy court

Posted at 9:37 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 22:54:56-04

NORTH FORT MYERS — For the vice president of MW Horticulture, when it comes to their relationship with Lee county one thing is clear.

"The county needs to be standing up next to us and protecting us and standing up for us instead of attacking us everyday," said Denise Houghtaling.

But instead of standing side-by-side, the county and her business spent Wednesday facing off against each other in bankruptcy court.

The two have been battling it out in court for almost a year over a bunch of things, but this time the county is hoping to force a foreclosure on on land located just down the road from the composting business's North Fort Myers office.

"We have not brought any debris into that hurricane Irma site since April 2018," said Houghtaling.

According to Lee county the Houghtalings were paid almost half a million dollars to take on some hurricane Irma debris at that yard.

That's something they can both agree on, but after that is where things get murky.

The owners say April of 2018 they were ready to start grinding up all of the wood and tree branches that they got from the county.

"You have to turn a waste product into a usable sustainable product and the only way to do that is to process it," said Houghtaling.

But county said they couldn't, because they were too close to homes.

And instead told them that they would have to haul it over to their South Fort Myers location.

The two sides spent months going back and forth, discussing the possibility of a special permit and in the meantime, the couple said the pile of debris was sitting in the sun, getting hot.

"We knew that this pile was getting so hot that if we opened it up and put air in it that we were going to have a major problem," said Houghtaling.

By August of 2018 the idea of a special permit was moot, and in September of 2018 the first of many fires over the next year would start.

Then came the next battle, the couple then asked the county to smother the pile with soil to put out the fires.

They even reached out to a composting expert named in Tampa to back up their claim.

"Only soil, covering it, smothering it puts out a mulch fire," said Houghtaling.

But documents show that the county wasn't sold on the idea and instead asked them to move it as is.

After more back and forth, the group ended up before a county hearing examiner in October of 2018. They gave the business until July of 2019 to get the pile out of there.

However, the business owners say they weren't able to get the job done until December of 2019.

Because they missed their deadline, they've been charged $200 a day since July of 2019, racking up a $60,000 lien on the property.

The problem is the owners say they don't know why they're still being charged in 2020, when they finished the job in 2019.

And they claim, they've asked for a code inspector to come out many times to check and see that they're done.

"I don't care if he wants us to stand up on our head. Whatever he wants us to do we will do. Just tell us what you want us to do," said Houghtaling.

The county claims the pair hauled other debris onto that yard, which is why the job took so long. They also claim the debris is still there, but that it has been spread out and buried on the property.

The company says all you have to do is look at the property to see this isn't true. They add that the entire ordeal has cost them about two million dollars and forced them to file chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But despite that they say they won't stop fighting.

"When you bury your daughter and your granddaughter which we've had to do, all this other shit is nothing compared to that," said Houghtaling.

The group is due back in court on July 6.