By Dan Harkins
DEBARY - Mayor Bob Garcia remembers fishing and exploring DeBary Bayou and nearby Konomac Lake when it was his grandpa and not him who needed a cane to get around.
But times have changed. DeBary Bayou, a marsh in the southeast section of the city, is largely landlocked by Interstate 4 today, choked with vegetation and too shallow for a boat most of the year. And Lake Konomac: That's the 40-year-old, 1,100-acre cooling pond for the Sanford Power Plant that dominates the aerial view of the rest of the city's southern half - though it can't be seen from anywhere on the ground except from an overpass on Fort Florida Road.
The inconspicuousness comes from the grassy mound that completely surrounds the lake to hold back high flood waters and the barbed wire fence to comply with post-9/11 regulations.
"We used to catch bass this big out there," Mayor Garcia said, measuring out the length of a football with his fingers. "But only the (power plant) employees can fish there now. The lake has always been very visible from as far back as I can remember. But not any more."
He'd like to see that change: "My God almighty, I would love to open that lake up. It has tremendous potential, but what impact would that have on the security of the plant? I don't know."
The lake's inaccessibility used to be easy to overlook when the lake was in the middle of a largely rural area. But that's not what the future holds.
The Florida Department of Transportation is currently building a SunRail commuter rail station on U.S. 17-92 at Fort Florida Road, a stone's throw from the cooling pond. Expected opening: sometime next year.
In preparation, city leaders have crafted a transit-oriented development plan that aims to create a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood there, suitable for use as the city's first true downtown area.
"That's the ultimate goal," Mayor Garcia said.
But the new neighborhood can only fan out to the east of the station and the tracks. That's because directly on the other side is the fencing and mounding of Lake Konomac, owned by Florida Power & Light.
Neighboring residents aren't thrilled about the lack of view.
In the "Lake Konomac" development, a short row of pricey homes on a gravel road at the lake's northern end, resident Greg Friel acted recently like he didn't even know about any lake nearby.
"It's no lake," he said flatly. "You can't see anything but grass."
This leads some to look on the bright side.
"At least we know nobody can ever build behind us," said Mr. Friel's neighbor, Kim Larson.
Since the 1970s, power plants have been installing cooling ponds across the nation as an expedient and aesthetically pleasing way to cool their equipment.
According to a 1970 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cooling ponds were initially viewed as boons to the bottom line and the surrounding area.
"The use of a cooling pond can result in lower overall electrical costs than cooling towers and be reasonably competitive with those of a natural water supply," the report stated. And "cooling ponds can provide a positive contribution to the recreational, aesthetic and ecological values of a community."
But then many cities facing flood problems, like DeBary, had to mound in the behemoth lakes to protect their citizens. Then, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the barbed wire fence was added to the view, said Richard Gibbs, spokesman for Florida Power & Light.
"If it is on property with any regulations regarding trespassing," Mr. Gibbs said, "it would be cordoned off."
But would the water there be suitable for recreational use anyway?
As part of its SunRail planning, the city is exploring the option of offering prospective developers the incentives of the state's brownfield redevelopment program. To do so, the only requirement would be that the land have the "perception of pollution," said George Houston, the central district brownfields coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"If you have an old dry cleaner or gas station or industrial site," he said, "there would be the perception that there could be pollution on that property. Those would qualify."
But would a cooling pond for a power plant and the land immediately surrounding it qualify?
"It could," Mr. Houston said.
Even though compliance reports don't always show the plant meeting government regulations for toxicity and effluent discharge, the company takes issue with the "perception of pollution" characterization.
"I just have a problem with this phrase 'perception of pollution,'" Mr. Gibbs said. "You're basically making a claim that there's pollution there when all the records and data and such other things would prove otherwise."
Christine Daniel, FDEP spokeswoman, said the company was notified of effluent toxicity discharges at Lake Konomac four times in late 2010 and early 2011. A new testing procedure, though, let the company off the hook.
"They have had a compliance problem there in the past with toxicity results," she said, "but since then, we've instituted a better test method and there's been no concerns with effluent."
The city never received notification of the reported discharges, according to City Manager Dan Parrott, but that doesn't mean Lake Konomac would be considered as having a perception of pollution anyway.
If anything, he said, the CSX railroad tracks next door, a nearby industrial park at the western end of Dirkson Drive and a few vacant gas stations would best qualify for that moniker.
"There's economic incentives that we can use to recruit business to that whole area," Mr. Parrott said. "That's what the primary goal of all this is. We've never had any issues with the lake, though. Sometimes the Sheriff has to go out there to kick people out who're fishing, but that's even rare."
The bottom line to some is merely the bottom line.
By far, Florida Power & Light owns the most property in the city - 3,621 acres. In second place is the St. Johns River Water Management District, with 892. That's a lot of property taxes, said Assistant City Manager Kassandra Esposito Blissett.
"It's no coincidence," she joked, "that we have the lowest millage rate in the county."
Getting the power company to change, Mayor Garcia said, is like stepping on the toes of the largest giant in town.
"The power company has a lot of power - pun intended," he said. "And when you have all the cards stacked in your favor, why do you want to give up anything? They actually have us crippled. Even though this could be a big selling point in the city, I don't think they see it that way."