May 17, 2024

Company leaders will give details on proposed pipe plant in Lake Wales

For months, a proposed pipe-manufacturing facility has dominated discussions in Lake Wales.

On Wednesday, executives from Advanced Drainage Systems, the company seeking to build the plant, will address citizens for the first time. ADS has scheduled a “town hall and community conversation” for 6 p.m. at the Lake Wales Arts Center.

Five leaders of the Ohio-based company are scheduled to attend the meeting, and they hope to allay concerns about the safety of the facility and its proximity to current and potential future homes.

Darin Harvey, the company’s executive vice president of supply chain, said he understands the questions some Lake Wales residents have raised about the plant that would make corrugated plastic pipes.

“I am not surprised at all,” Harvey said by phone. “If I lived in Lake Wales and I didn't have the information and this came across my doorstep, I would have the same reaction, to be honest. I would have the same concerns that the community has.”

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ADS seeks to construct the plant on a 97-acre property in south Lake Wales. The site, bordered by 11th Street (County Road 17B) to the west, Hunt Brothers Road to the south and the Florida Midland Railroad line to the east, contains former citrus groves.

The company plans to invest $250 million on the plant, which would be its largest in the country when fully constructed, Harvey said. The mill would use heat to mold pipes from plastic pellets delivered by rail.

Debate about the potential facility has swirled in Lake Wales for months, with some residents voicing opposition to the project at City Commission meetings. The objections have partly centered on questions of whether the plant would be able to operate under the site’s current land-use designation or would need a special permit from the city.

Amid the debate, it emerged that the city had inadvertently changed a description in its land-use code, negating a previous revision intended to allow light manufacturing with outdoor storage – the activity planned for the ADS site – without the need for a permit.

The city’s planning staff drafted a revision to city ordinance to correct what officials have labeled a “scrivener’s error.” The Planning and Zoning Committee voted 4-1 against recommending the change at its March 28 meeting, but the City Commission voted unanimously last week in favor of the revision.

The City Commission can formally adopt the change in ordinance during a second reading at its May 2 meeting.

Some residents have questioned why ADS has not previously held a meeting in Lake Wales to provide information and answer their questions. Harvey, a Florida native, said the company’s leaders have wanted to do so but were waiting for the city to resolve the uncertainty about the land-use designation.

“But we've now decided, given all of the talk in Lake Wales, we really need to come down and be able to be as transparent with the community and answer all these questions,” Harvey said. “We voluntarily decided to come and do this town hall to help get the factual information out into the community. That said, this isn't just about this town hall. We want to develop a relationship with Lake Wales for the future. We don't operate well unless we have a good partner with the community around us, and we think there's still plenty of time to do that.”

Harvey said ADS has not yet completed the purchase of the property from Hunt Bros., a prominent agriculture company.

As city officials have grappled with land-use questions, some residents have posted signs bearing such messages as “Stop Toxic Pipe Plant.”

Harvey said five ADS executives are scheduled to attend Wednesday’s meeting, including himself and the company’s vice president of health, safety and environment. He said they will welcome questions from Lake Wales residents.

In advance of the town hall, Harvey sought to dispel some of the criticisms that have arisen. He described the ADS facilities as light manufacturing and said the melting of plastic produces no emissions and would not require a permit from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The only emissions would come from forklifts used inside the plant to move pipes, Harvey said.

“Our processes are very environmentally friendly,” Harvey said. “We're deeply invested in protecting the environment, and this facility will be the most state-of-the-art facility that we've ever built.”

ADS makes pipes from polypropylene, and polyethylene, Harvey said, material used in such products as milk jugs and detergent containers. The manufacturing process uses no hazardous materials, he said.

ADS operates plants in Sebring and Winter Garden and has distribution centers in Fort Lauderdale and Panama City. The company has facilities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina that are larger than the Lake Wales facility would be in its initial phase, he said.

“But the difference here is this one will be much more technologically advanced than the ones we have in these other areas,” he said.

Two existing neighborhoods lie within a half-mile of the plant site, and the village of Highland Park is just to the south. The village’s wellfield for drinking water is a few hundred yards from the property, former Mayor Blair Updike said.

Much of the area around the site is zoned for residential development, and some citizens have said the manufacturing plant is not compatible with nearby neighborhoods.

“We have 17 facilities today that are within half a mile of residential areas, and we've really partnered well with those communities and we expect to do the same here,” Harvey said.

During comments at meetings, some residents have said they don’t oppose the ADS plant in itself but don’t think the location is right for it. They have suggested that it should be in an industrial park.

Harvey said the site suits the company’s needs for a large manufacturing plant because of its size and proximity to a railroad line.

“The rail prevents us having to drive more trucks in,” Harvey said. “So we need rail for delivering material, and we need acreage just for storage. So that’s why we can't be in what you call a regular industrial park, like you see with Amazon or Home Depot or some of those. That’s the reason for the selection of the property.”

Residents have voiced concerns about the traffic the pipe plant would generate. Harvey said ADS would have between 100 and 150 trucks arriving or departing on weekdays. He said trucks would leave between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and return between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to avoid peak traffic.

Noting the area’s history of citrus growing, Harvey said the trucks carrying plastic pipes would have much lighter loads than trucks carrying oranges. He said the company would avoid sending trucks through central Lake Wales.

ADS expects to create more than 100 jobs for the first phase and over 200 when the plant is fully expanded, Harvey said. He estimated that the jobs would pay 15% to 20% above the median wage in Lake Wales.

“This would be a much more automated plant, which means it's going to require much more technical jobs, which is why it's going to be really important that we partner with the charter schools and the other schools that are in Lake Wales,” he said. “What we really want to do is create a career for people in Lake Wales.”

Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.