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City preps for legal battle to buy sludge disposal property

Four months after voting to buy 114 acres off Steel Bridge Road for use as a sewage sludge disposal site, despite objections raised by nearby homeowners concerned about public health and safety, the Macclenny City Commission is gearing up for a legal battle to acquire the parcel.

The target of a possible lawsuit in the case is one of the world’s largest cellulose fiber producing firms in the world and the seventh largest owner of timberlands in the United States — Rayonier.

The Jacksonville-based international forest products manufacturer owns about 2 million acres in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Washington.

The conflict originated from a decision by the city commission in June to buy the property from Lewyn Boyette, a real estate investor who had a contract to buy the land from Rayonier through its property-management subsidiary Terra Pointe Services LLC. An article about the decision appeared in The Baker County Press on June 21.

A controversy later ensued after a letter appeared in The Press on July 5 from a woman in New Hampshire, who identified herself as having a Ph.D., stating that sewage sludge could create environmental problems and an unhealthy atmosphere for nearby families.

Her predictions were in direct conflict with the city’s consulting engineer, Frank Darabi, who has maintained all along that treated wastewater effluent is commonly used as a fertilizer on fields and does not pose a hazard to the environment or to people.

As reported in The Press on July 12, the city commission reaffirmed its intent to buy the land during a meeting on July 10. The issue lay dormant until last week when City Manager Gerald Dopson informed the board in a letter about a legal conflict shaping up with Rayonier to acquire the parcel.

“Upon learning that Mr. Boyette was to sell the property to the City of Macclenny, Rayonier … informed Mr. Boyette and the City of Macclenny they did not intend to go forward with the contract,” Mr. Dopson said in his letter, which he presented to the board on the evening of November 13.

The city manager further stated that City Attorney Frank Maloney and other lawyers consulted on the matter agreed that, in their collective legal opinion, the contract contained no provision requiring Mr. Boyette to get the company’s permission to sell the land.

City officials acknowledged that they could initiate condemnation proceedings to force the sale of the property under the law of eminent domain, which gives governments the right to seize private property for public purposes.

However, Mr. Maloney advised against such a measure due to its potentially expensive and legally complicated nature, requiring a 12-member jury to ultimately determine how much must be paid for a piece of property, including possible reimbursement of legal fees to the unwilling seller.

Instead, Mr. Maloney recommended suing Rayonier for breach of contract.

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