Late January’s methamphetamine lab bust within a Sawgrass townhouse neighborhood left some in the Ponte Vedra Beach community shaken.
The hazmat suits, tent and people being hosed off in a makeshift decontamination chamber were an unfamiliar sight in the development that’s known widely for its world-class golf courses.
Home inspection and building code specialist Wally Conway with HomePro Inspections thinks the “it won’t happen here” line of thought is shortsighted when it comes to meth production.
“The ‘not in my neighborhood’ thing is malarkey. They’re not looking at it from the right perspective. Do I want to check into some dive off of Philips Highway or make meth in an empty house in Sawgrass? You have to put yourself in the mind of the guy that does these goofy things. Is a person making meth going to be worried about breaking and entering?”
“The criminal says, ‘it’s dangerous conducting business in crack town. I’m going to the country club,’” Conway continued. “Frankly, the chances of being beaten or caught are dramatically less in Sawgrass.”
The Sawgrass lab wasn’t the first to be set up in the community. Last year, a hotel room at the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra Beach was used for meth manufacturing.
On the 1700 block of Hodges Boulevard, located across Atlantic Boulevard from Queens Harbour Yacht and Country Club, is the Woodhollow apartment complex, where a 2012 meth lab raid temporarily left four apartment units vacant and condemned over several months.
Conway noted that area desirability is the motivating factor behind cleanup.
“If it occurs in a more challenged part of town, the house sits in condemnation, which benefits no one. Nobody wants to write that check,” Conway said. “Getting it cleared so it can be listed or rented again is a serious pain in the behind.”
The EPA reports that decontaminating a meth lab site can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $150,000; in many cases the least costly option is demolition.
Aleizha L. Batson, deputy director of communications at the City of Jacksonville, said that all residual clean-up after the discovery remains the responsibility of the owner.
“Initially, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department transports the chemicals from the site to a hazardous waste facility,” Batson said.
According to Batson, properties deemed as “illegal drug manufacturing” sites can be condemned by the Municipal Code Compliance Division “after a determination of the presence of meth precursors are made” by the Jacksonville’s Sheriff’s Office. The City of Jacksonville’s website maintains an “Unsafe for Use” property listing, with the earliest entries made in 2011. Currently, the list includes 21 addresses.
Meanwhile, St. Johns County Code Enforcement suggests that owners hire an environmental cleaning company after a positive result on a contamination test.
The Special Investigations Unit in St. Johns County had investigated eight meth lab cases in the first two months of 2014. Last year, 19 cases were investigated. In 2012 and 2011, 22 and 29 meth lab cases were investigated, respectively.
“Our Special Investigations Unit, [which] investigates the meth houses, reports each lab to County Property Appraiser’s Office and to the Clerk of Courts for recording,” said Media Relations Officer Kevin Kelshaw with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. “The cleanup is handled by the County Code Enforcement Department, and if the property is remediated to standards, Code Enforcement notifies the other entities.”
However, state laws in Florida have long omitted cleanup regulations and disclosure of former meth labs to potential renters or sellers of such properties. While real estate agents abide by a code of ethics that bind them to communicate any issues that could decrease property value to buyers, there are no disclosure guidelines or well-defined legal penalties if they fail to do so.
Since 2004, the discoveries of meth labs, dump sites and equipment in Florida has dipped and mounted, hitting a peak of 527 cases in 2010, and a year later in 2011, bottoming out at 160. In 2012, the most recent year of reporting, there were 284 cases.
A contributing factor to the creation of methamphetamine labs is the availability of vacant structures.
A 2013 Census Homeownership and Vacancy survey showed that Jacksonville makes the top 10 list of metro areas with the highest rates of vacancy. In October, the vacancy rate was 11.7 percent, compared to April 2000’s vacancy rate of 1.7 percent.
Conway said he tests surfaces in houses with swabs similar to those found in a pool testing kit.
“It’s similar. You break a vial and swab a chemical on a suspected surface,” he said, and noted that, in the past, he’s done 15 to 20 inspections for the presence of methamphetamines.
“It comes up about once a quarter that someone sees something on television and might think it was a little close to home for them, so they call us up,” he said. “This can happen in any neighborhood.”