HERNANDO BEACH — The long-awaited effort to widen and deepen the Hernando Beach channel is one step closer to getting started, but not everyone is thrilled about it.
The state Department of Environmental Protection announced its intention Friday to issue a permit so that material dredged out of the channel could be deposited on Eagle Nest Drive.
The so-called notice of intent is a "major milestone,'' according to assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton, who is heading the project. "We're in the homestretch," he said about a project that has been in the works for more than a decade.
The notice gives the public 21 days to comment, pro or con, before the department issues the final permit. Some residents have alleged cronyism in the way the county has handled the project. Formal complaints from residents could tie up the project for months or longer, DEP officials have said.
The permit is the second of two required by the DEP for the project to go forward. The first, which gave the county permission to dredge, has already been issued.
The county plans to dredge material from the bottom of the channel and move it to a parcel of land owned by the Manuel family on Eagle Nest Drive.
Wayne Dukes, president of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association and candidate for District 3 county commissioner, is glad to see another step forward in the process. "It's a long time coming," he said.
Dukes said the shallow channel is unsafe for travel, especially during low tide. Dredging, he said, will help.
Initially, the county planned to leave dredge deposits in the wetlands and create a salt marsh to mitigate the environmental consequences. But once it was determined the marsh threatened state-protected sea grass, the county decided to take the deposits out of the wetlands.
Joe Murphy, conservation chair for the Hernando County Audubon Society, still thinks the plan would harm the environment.
"Avoidance, not minimization or mitigation, should be the policy when dealing with fragile coastal resources," Murphy wrote in a letter to county commissioners late last month.
Murphy said the county had a good plan to avoid what he called "sensitive coastal resources" when it considered an alternate deposit location.
Though deposits in the wetlands would be temporary, spoils left on the Manuels' property will be permanent.
The county is paying the Manuels $10 to use the land, and Sutton considers the sand, silt and shell deposits from the dredge, which the Manuels plan to use to develop, a payment in-kind.
Richard Doyle, who lives near the Manuels and has opposed the plan to use the Manuels' property, said the alternative site the county had considered would be less costly. The county has a "hidden agenda" to help the Manuels, he said.
"It's another example in Hernando County of blowing the taxpayers' money to help an individual," Doyle said Monday.
Murphy agreed. "We think the county should do what is best for the environment, not just for a handful of politically influential families," he said.
Calls seeking comment from Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering Associates, were not immediately returned.
Sutton said the county and its consultant both determined that the Eagle Nest Drive site is the most cost-efficient. The overall project is estimated at $9-million, with $6-million coming from the state.
"The fact that the FDEP has indicated its intent to issue the permit, that seems to suggest that the site is acceptable," Sutton said.
Dukes said when the project is completed, most residents will be happy with the outcome and will forget their original concerns.
If all goes as Sutton hopes, the county could start dredging by the end of summer.
If the DEP issues the second permit, the county must receive another permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before it starts the bid process for contractors.
The project is estimated to take 10 to 12 months to complete.
Doyle said he does not know whether he or other project opponents will comment on the notice before the 21-day deadline. But he said he will continue to fight the project.
Murphy said he plans to comment during the 21-day time frame.
Michael Sanserino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1430.