A Man on a Mission

When President George W. Bush proclaimed biodiesel the most promising renewable fuel, one that could help meet his 36 billion-gallon goal, he was likely unaware that this mandate would set off a debate now taking place across America: don't build here or anywhere near here.
By Sarah Smith | April 15, 2008
Craig Shaver has taken on the monumental task of single-handedly making sure the president's renewable fuel goals are met. The Florida businessman's year-long battle to build a biodiesel plant near Dundee, Fla., ended in failure, leaving him with a $2.5 million empty lot. He threatened to sue the city, but decided instead to move on to another town.

Along the 45-mile route, he's preaching the gospel of biodiesel loudly, insistently and unwaveringly. Meeting President George W. Bush's renewable fuels standard is a patriotic, practical and a positive step in making the country energy independent, Shaver maintains to anyone who will listen. "This is an important story," he says. "Not because it's mine, but because people need to be educated. There's a fear of the unknown and I feel people are against biodiesel for no good reason. It's good for the country."

Mandate's Ground Zero: Dundee, Fla.
Shaver's fight with Dundee started in early 2004 when he applied for a zoning change to operate a crane business on a parcel of land he owned adjacent to a propane business on the outskirts of town. By January 2007, he'd caught biofuels fever, changed plans and proposed building a biodiesel plant on the site, calling his company US Biodiesel Inc. Dundee, a town of 3,400 residents, is nestled on the Highway 27 corridor, which runs through the heart of Florida, from Miami north to Maine. Shaver's plant was a closed-loop design, engineered to produce 20,000 gallons of fuel a day. The major commercial highway was a big draw, because Shaver's business plan called for manufacturing and distributing the fuel on-site, "like a truck stop," he says. He wanted to capitalize on the heavy traffic flow, selling to a captive audience.

Shaver purchased tanks capable of storing 150,000 gallons of feedstocks, and had a building on the site. "Basically, we had the complete infrastructure minus the processing and equipment," he says. It wouldn't have taken long to ramp up production. Shaver and his engineer researched feedstocks and although they had imported jatropha seeds, they were concerned as feedstock prices rose precipitously. His engineer was able to adapt, he says, using new process technology to accommodate cheaper grade feedstocks. He looked at beef tallow, waste vegetable oil and waste grease. He arranged a tentative deal with a Brazilian supplier to import crude soy oil for five years. "It was a great plan until the city turned us down," he says. Shaver claims his property had the correct land use and zoning for the proposal. Not so, say city leaders.

"It did not fit into our comprehensive plan," says Bob Kampsen, a Dundee Town Council member, and the only city official willing to go on record about the dispute. "It was not zoned properly. The zoning was for light industrial and we considered a biodiesel plant a heavy industrial use."

Shaver, who says he had "one of the best land-use attorneys in the county," disagreed. He and his attorney concluded the land was properly zoned and that he was illegally denied a permit. Dundee and its attorney said the distinction between light industrial and heavy industrial use might have been a fine point but an important one nonetheless. And city leaders denied they were too rigid in their interpretation of the city zoning ordinance. "Unless our comprehensive plan provides for a heavy industrial area, I don't foresee any biodiesel or any type of manufacturing, which is classified as heavy industrial," says Kampsen, a local citrus farmer. "I don't see any of those floating."

Debate Takes a New Turn
On January 22, when the Dundee Town Council launched a lengthy discussion of the project, talk turned from zoning issues to a more explosive topic-the potential for a biodiesel plant to catch fire. Councilman Randy Dowd said he conducted research on the issue and he didn't like what he found. He declared biodiesel plants a potential fire hazard. He declined to comment further to Biodiesel Magazine. Another council member said while he supports the space shuttle program, he didn't want one taking off from the Winn-Dixie parking lot. Residents and business owners banded together in opposition to the plant on the grounds that it would cause odor problems, disturb a tranquil area and uproot an eagle's nest. That's when Shaver got mad. The propane business across the street had a lesser zoning use: commercial. "We had light industrial yet they were able to keep a flammable gas there but we couldn't put a biodiesel plant on our land," he protested. "At any given fuel station within city limits, even the diesel is more flammable than biodiesel."

Shaver went away mad, threatening to sue the town. It probably didn't help his case when he referred to the townspeople as "uneducated and afraid of the unknown." But since the town seemed dead set against biodiesel, it probably didn't hurt him, either. He then channeled his anger into a more productive venue. He sent his engineer to set up a booth at the National Biodiesel Conference and Expo in nearby Orlando, Fla., in February. "A councilman from the panhandle saw the display," Shaver says. "They're just begging for biodiesel there. They have farmers interested in doing it." But he quickly learned that the cost of moving so far upstate wasn't advantageous, so he embarked on a central Florida tour-part educational mission, part developmental quest.

On March 5, President Bush gave Shaver's quest a much needed boost. Addressing the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference, he discussed his 36 billion gallon by 2022 goal. "These aren't just goals, these are mandatory requirements," the president told conference attendees. "I'm confident the United States can meet those goals, and I know we must, for the sake of economic security, national security, and for the sake of being good stewards of the environment. ... Biodiesel is the most promising of these fuels."

The Green Debate Through the Permitting Process
Kampsen says it's wrongheaded to think that Dundee doesn't want to participate in the president's biofuels mandate. It simply wasn't the best fit, he maintains. "I'm very sensitive to the environment," he says. "I have a small 10-acre grove and as far as chemicals that I use, and the caretaker of the grove uses, we're very sensitive." He says he doesn't know how Shaver got the idea that the council was against alternative fuels in general. "There's a lot of speculation about green industries in Florida," Kampsen says. "Down south they're talking about the sugar waste being used in alternative fuels. There are many industries interested and speculating on alternative fuels and what crops can be used. I can't speak for the rest of the council but this biodiesel plant just didn't fit into our comprehensive plan."

Steve Snyder is a zoning and development attorney in Syracuse, Ind., who has worked both sides of the fence. He's helped small towns shore up their zoning ordinances and comprehensive development plans. He's also assisted biofuels industries to fit into those schemes. He says that although he hasn't been involved in the Florida case, he's familiar with the premise. "This issue is raised in all types of zoning situations when additional governmental permits for nonzoning approvals are required," he says. "Typically new industry requires some type of air or water permit from the state or federal environmental agency, but also requires zoning approval from the local Board of Zoning Appeals. The two operate on totally different standards."

But he also says that, "zoning ordinances normally have much more nebulous standards. health and welfare of the community, effect on adjacent property values, compatible land uses and preserving the purpose of the zoning ordinance." While zoning ordinances give discretion to local zoning boards to approve or deny a permit, environmental agencies issue a permit if their standards are met. "Because the two groups represent different constituencies, their respective decisions on the same project could be completely opposite," Snyder says. "That doesn't mean either was right or wrong."

Shaver disagrees. He's a patriotic guy and thinks he has a duty as a citizen to implement the president's goal, along with the rest of the citizenry. He wonders where all those plants will be built to carry out that goal if no one wants them. Population centers that have the infrastructure and transportation systems in place should be willing to step up, he maintains. New technologies have made biodiesel plants noiseless, odorless, and have significantly reduced the fire hazards, he says.

Small Towns Versus the Feds
"Philosophically, I'm a firm believer in local controls," Snyder says. "Statewide or federal agencies are seldom capable of understanding truly local considerations." Conversely, Shaver believes township boards are myopic and are missing the big picture. He's moving toward a more rural area currently and is in talks with a neighboring county, where he believes the talks are going well. "People are uneducated about biodiesel," he says. "They're not allowing this industry to flourish the way it should."

Snyder, a big-picture guy, disagrees. "If federal policies promote ethanol, that doesn't mean local boards, familiar with local conditions, rebuke that policy if they reject a particular project," he says. "It just means the project didn't meet the standards of development legally established by the local zoning ordinance. Concurrent jurisdiction of both state/federal and local agencies is a way of assuring that the interests of all elements of a community are considered before a decision regarding any project is made."

Sarah Smith is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at ssmith@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 663-5002.
 
 
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