Newberry approves LifeSoils lease agreement, discusses Searby

Commissioner Ricky Coleman made the motion to direct staff to help EFN.
Commissioner Rick Coleman speaks at a May 13 meeting.
Photo by Glory Reitz

The Newberry City Commission unanimously authorized the city manager to execute a ground lease with LifeSoils, LLC for a 15-acre composting operation at the Newberry Environmental Park. 

The lease will allow LifeSoils to use the space without paying rent, in return for offering the city free disposal of vegetative debris and biosolids, 100 cubic yards of compost material each year, a promise to use the city’s electric, water and wastewater services and an agreement to comply with Newberry’s odor, noise and light regulations. 

The city of Newberry also promises in the lease to place stormwater retention facilities and off-site electric, water, and wastewater utility infrastructure for the tenant. 

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City Manager Mike New said the contract will save the city from an extra $100-120,000 each year for biosolids disposal.  

The city’s wastewater treatment facility generates two types of biproduct: treated effluent and biosolids. The treated effluent is released into the ground through a sprinkler system, while biosolids are currently applied to the land to be absorbed into grass vegetation, which is harvested as hay. 

According to New, new wastewater regulations on biosolid disposal are requiring the city to change its disposal plan. The new disposal plans are expensive and could significantly raise wastewater rates. 

In a search for an option that would not require the city to raise its rates, New said staff came across LifeSoils, which turns biosolids into a high-quality soil amendment by an aerobic composting process. 

LifeSoils mixes yard debris and biosolids to produce a soil amendment that enhances the soil for crops and turf grasses. Soils amended with the product have displayed better water retention, resistance to pests and increased crop yield rates. 

New said LifeSoils’s process is only cost-effective if the company does not have to transport materials farther than 75 miles, and there is no facility yet to serve North Central Florida. 

“Newberry has one thing that, say, the city of Gainesville doesn’t,” New said. “And that’s available land to have a facility such as this. We also generate biosolids, and we also generate yard debris, so we become a very natural candidate for partnership with LifeSoils.” 

The 15 acres to be leased for the facility are directly beside the city’s 200-acre wastewater treatment plant site. New said this will make it easy for the city to transport its biosolids to LifeSoil, though the company will also collect biosolids from anywhere in a 75-mile radius. 

The lease is for 30 years, with consecutive optional renewal terms of 10 years each. 

New assured commissioners that LifeSoils’s method of aerobic composting generates very little odor, only detectable on the facility site itself. 

Though New said the agreement with LifeSoils is unlikely to cause a drop in wastewater rates, he said without the agreement the rates would likely need to rise to cover extra costs for compliance with the new wastewater regulations. 

Charter School Conversion 

Several citizen commenters attended the meeting to ask the commission to reconsider its support of converting Newberry Elementary School into a charter school. 

The citizens cited concerns about the city pledging a $120,000 loan to help nonprofit Education First for Newberry with an application to the Florida Charter School Review Commission. They asked what happens if the school application fails, and the yet-to-be-formed nonprofit that would run it fails to repay the loan. 

A slim margin in the teacher portion of the school conversion vote in April left the community split on whether the vote had passed or failed in the first place. EFN continued with the application, and along with the City Commission, has approved a board of governors for the school, if it successfully converts. 

Citizens also voiced distress about Joel Searby, EFN’s spokesperson throughout the conversion push, who was arrested last week for lewd behavior and luring a minor. 

“I find myself having to reevaluate everything I was told by this guy that was in a leadership position,” citizen Brandy Oldman, an active opponent of the conversion, told the commission. “And I hope that y’all can kind of do the same. And it’s hard to admit when we were manipulated, right? That’s a tough pill to swallow. So I just want to say if we could reconsider that, that’d be great.” 

Commissioner Rick Coleman said the situation around Searby is tragic, and that he hopes people remember Searby’s family and the victim in the situation. 

“I wish that maybe, out of all this, that maybe this’ll bring Newberry back together, throw out the school stuff and just go on with what we were doing before this even happened,” Coleman said. 

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This commission is such a disaster.