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Florida Rock Industries plugs old quarry as dream site for city

Giving Florida Rock Industries permission to build a new city in their old quarry 6 miles north of downtown Brooksville — as a county planning board recommended on Monday — would be a handout on top of a handout.

Necessary as mines may be, their environmental destruction is total: bulldozed trees, topsoil treated as a waste product called "overburden,'' limestone ridges blasted flat.

Mining used to be the most powerful industry in Hernando, and as such mine owners weren't asked to fix this damage until county law changed in 1993, and then they only had to reclaim land mined after that time. At the Quarry, this has amounted to slightly more than 100 acres.

That was handout No. 1, which created the need for handout No. 2: development approval that will give some resale value to this otherwise worthless moonscape.

Predictably, Matt McNulty, project manager for the Quarry Preserve, the city with as many as 5,800 houses and apartments the mine is planning for its old quarry, says no decision has been made on whether the company will develop this property or sell it.

Me? I'd put money on Florida Rock unloading it, or trying to, because a full-time development company would seem better suited to the job of marketing residential lots — and don't forget, sites for offices and factories, which are also part of the plan — in a remote mining pit.

And, considering the current market, it's hard to imagine this sale will happen soon.

So why the rush for approval?

McNulty has said it's because the quarry is just about played out. What he didn't say is that there's a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year, sponsored by a group called Hometown Democracy, that could put these kinds of decisions in voters' hands — and that sends chills down the spine of every developer in Florida.

That would be a nice deadline for the Quarry to beat, just as it beat a local deadline.

Remember the super-majority rule, the one that says the votes of four county commissioners are needed to approve a change to the comprehensive plan? Well, forget about it. Florida Rock got its request for a comp plan change to the county in 2006, just before the rule went into effect.

I could write a half-dozen columns about the Planning and Zoning Commission discussion Monday of the Quarry, which went on so long, nearly five hours, and featured so many hired-gun lawyers and engineers to speak glowingly of its prospects, that you could almost think it was 2005 again, back before the housing industry went into its tailspin and took the rest of our economy with it.

But I have time.

The County Commission won't vote on whether to forward this project for state approval for another month, which is when we will find out whether the commissioners represent the public or developers.

That's how easy this decision is — how clear an example of sprawl the Quarry is, how unnecessary.

So, for now, let's focus on just one of the fictions spread by the Quarry's attorney, Jake Varn, and engineer Cliff Manuel, who were assisted every step of the way by Planning Commission Chairman Robert Widmar and his unstinting efforts to downplay the considerable concerns of county planners.

This fiction revolves around that aforementioned word — unnecessary — except, Varn and Manuel say the opposite, that Hernando actually needs projects such as the Quarry.

The Quarry's experts calculated that if their project were approved the county will have enough undeveloped residential land to accommodate two-and-a-half times its projected population growth.

But that means little, they say, because so many of these lots are in old subdivisions such as Royal Highlands, with septic tanks and lime rock roads. What the county really needs, and what prospective buyers lack, are new subdivisions, built to modern standards, Varn said.

Let me refute this with just a few names: Hickory Hill, Majestic Oaks, Sunrise, World Woods, Lake Hideaway, the reconfigured Seville.

This is not a complete list of developments approved this decade, not even close. But that is most of the big ones, all of them planned to modern standards, all of them touted by developers for the care they would take with the environment, as Varn should know because he did a lot of the touting.

Between them they have been approved for 15,000 lots. Precisely 23 of these lots, all of them in Seville, contain homes.

Also, don't forget Hernando is part of the Tampa Bay market, which means the Quarry should be compared with projects in nearby counties, including Connerton in east Pasco.

When developers pitched it a few years ago, it sounded a lot like the Quarry: walkable downtown, modern design, environmentally friendly, a mix of commercial and residential uses, and, with more than 7,000 homes, a massive scale.

It was so necessary it just went out of business.

Florida Rock Industries plugs old quarry as dream site for city 12/15/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 7:43pm]
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