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A gem of nature, Chinsegut Hill at risk

Chinsegut Hill, with its antebellum home, is the highest point in the county.

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Chinsegut Hill, with its antebellum home, is the highest point in the county.

Chinsegut Hill, as the bureaucrats say, is being "surplused."

Unloaded, in other words. Dumped. Jettisoned. Put up for sale.

Not to a state agency with a duty to preserve it as the only remaining antebellum plantation home in the county.

Not to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, which could make it the headquarters for thousands of acres of natural land north of Brooksville.

Not to a university that could use the 163-year-old Chinsegut manor house and modern cabins as an educational retreat.

That phase of the process, when the hill could be claimed by a public agency, has just about passed. Now, according to a spokesman for the Division of State Lands, it is being appraised for private sale and will be placed on the market in less than two months.

Who might buy it?

Maybe a developer with plans to divide its 114 acres into large, wooded residential lots or maybe even small, unwooded ones.

Maybe a tycoon who'd like to make the manor house a monument to his or her ego or tear it down to make way for a bigger monument.

Maybe even a lime rock mine.

Yes, the most alarming of these possibilities are also probably the least likely. But I have heard that, as the county's highest point, 274 feet above sea level, the hill holds its most valuable reserves of hard rock. The point is, when it comes to Chinsegut, almost anything is now possible.

The highly touted restrictions that the previous owners, Margaret and Raymond Robins, placed on this land when they deeded it to the federal government in 1932 expired after 50 years, in 1982, Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in an email Friday.

"So, the property will be offered for bid without restrictions."

I know I've written a lot about Chinsegut. That's partly because I've visited it enough to fully appreciate its beauty and value. And if you think I've written about it too much, it might be because the previous leaseholder, the University of South Florida, limited public access to the hill for years, meaning you probably never got to see the opportunity it presented.

Buddy Selph has done more than visit. He lives on one of a handful of private parcels at the base of the hill. Even as a conservative Realtor with a bias in favor of private enterprise, he agreed with me that this case called for government intervention. A few hundred thousand dollars could have generated millions for the local economy.

Marketed properly, which USF never did, Chinsegut could have packed in visitors for corporate conferences, weddings, yoga retreats, cycling camps, birding seminars. You name it.

People would have been blown away by the sight of it — almost like a piece of the Blue Ridge a short drive from Tampa or Orlando.

No doubt in my mind, the sprawl-bound masses would have wanted to come back. No doubt this could have helped recast Hernando County as a center for tourism rather than foreclosures.

I've also written about Chinsegut because in the past few years my hope for it has faded by degrees.

In 2009, USF announced it wanted to get out of its lease and the cost of maintaining the house and the hill. A county-state agreement that could have kept it in public hands fell through in 2011. Earlier this year, the federal Department of Agriculture abandoned its 3,600-acre research station to the south of the hill.

It's not a lost cause yet.

We can hope the state finds a sensitive or even charity-minded private buyer for Chinsegut. There's also a slim chance that the Conservation Commission, broke as it is, will step up to manage the USDA property, and an even slimmer one that it may — "and I want to underscore 'may,' " said Jerrie Lindsey, an FWC director — take on a part of the Chinsegut grounds, though not the manor house or cabins.

So Chinsegut isn't yet a huge blown opportunity. But it's real close.

Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter at @ddewitttimes.

A gem of nature, Chinsegut Hill at risk 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 2:42pm]
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