Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Plan for Hernando Beach nature education center merits more thought

Nobody seems to have regular old ideas about Hernando Beach and what may or may not be its future educational plaza.

They have visions.

So here is mine, based on a tour of the coastal community earlier this week, followed by a short hike into the neighboring Weekiwachee Preserve:

Not a super-short hike, by the way. The preserve's southern entrance on Osowaw Boulevard is closed to car traffic, leaving a walk of more than a mile to the feature attraction — the shimmering, groundwater-filled lakes left by a former mining operation.

Their appearance invites, practically demands, swimming, yet that use has been forbidden since the preserve opened to the public in 1997.

There once was talk of changing that, with the county planning a swimming park that would have been accessed from the west, an idea shot down by Hernando Beach residents worried about — this will sound familiar — traffic on Shoal Line Boulevard.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, in turn, shot down the obvious alternative: allowing people to drive up the paved road from the Osowaw entrance to the edge of the largest lake.

This is a preserve, after all, the district said at the time. No way people with their trash and their coolers are going to park in the middle of prime wildlife habitat.

Swiftmud apparently has softened this stance, just as it's softened so much environmental protection.

In this case, I say, it's about time.

Hernando County, which is still without a public pool, desperately needs another swimming spot. The southern part of the preserve, the site of the old mine, isn't so pristine that it would be ruined by a small, roped-off swimming area, a playground and a parking lot, which is in a plan the county is preparing to submit to the district.

If Swiftmud accepts this plan, if the county can build the park, it will expose more people to the preserve and give kayakers, hikers, mountain bikers and birders better access to the heart of the property. In other words, it will make this a real center of outdoor recreation in an actual natural area.

And that, it seems to me, makes it the obvious spot for an educational plaza, with displays explaining the wildlife and natural features that visitors are sure to be curious about — bears, the aquifer, scrub habitat.

It also should feature all of the other outdoor recreation available nearby. That includes boating and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and the easy access provided by the boating channel with its recently completed, $15 million dredge that we all paid for — meaning it should darn well serve a countywide purpose such as tourist development.

Specifically, the plaza should be near the preserve's Osowaw entrance, a few hundred yards from the passing motorists on U.S. 19, rather than 7 miles — the distance to the currently planned site on Shoal Line Drive next to Blue Pelican Marina.

The owners of the marina own that site, which is another advantage of building the plaza in the preserve. Presumably, the county wouldn't have to pay for land with any of the $4 million for the project in the state Legislature's budget, which awaits the approval of Gov. Rick Scott.

County Administrator Len Sossamon, one of the visionaries of the plaza, likes the idea of tourists not just stopping by, but sticking around.

So, maybe the site of the county's soon-to-be decommissioned sewage treatment plant, just across Osowaw from the preserve, could be sold to somebody who wants to build a motel or a lodge.

Is that an economically feasible use for that land, considering the contamination there? Don't know.

How would Swiftmud feel about building this plaza at the gateway to its preserve? Don't know that, either.

Which is another reason the County Commission should go with the suggestion to put off a vote on the rezoning of the Blue Pelican site, which was set for Tuesday.

Commissioners need to give this more thought, need to consider other locations.

And not necessarily because of the worries — some legitimate, some less so — of Hernando Beach residents who think the plaza will destroy their corner of paradise.

Because it's not a paradise, at least not a natural one.

Blue Pelican is on the northern edge of a commercial corridor through one of the more notorious dredge-and-fill projects in the state.

And the minimum requirement of a nature center, as I see it, is that it should be near some nature.

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