BROOKSVILLE — The county’s proposal to turn a portion of the Weekiwachee Preserve near Hernando Beach into a beach park generated a flood of opinions. But the Hernando County Commission’s hurried discussion last week about placing a park referendum on the August 28 primary ballot was nearly as controversial.
After a social media storm and a petition to stop the park acquired more than 700 signatures in a few days, the Commission on Tuesday took a step back.
Now they plan to talk with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the preserve, to find out what the agency thinks about putting the beach park on the November ballot.
The public, and even commissioners, found the proposed ballot language confusing. It asked if people wanted the county to pursue a land swap with Swiftmud for a recreation area in the preserve at no cost to taxpayers. Garth Coller, the county attorney, said Tuesday that while the swap would not cost taxpayers, ongoing operations and maintenance would.
"That is a big problem for me,’’ said Commissioner John Allocco. "It absolutely is not at no cost to taxpayers.’’
Putting the question on the August ballot was too rushed, Allocco said, and the primary would not draw enough voters to know how people really felt about the plan.
Commission Chairman Steve Champion, the most vocal proponent of the plan, said he hoped the park would pay for itself.
"There is not a single park in this county that is self-funded, and this will be the most expensive,’’ Allocco said.
Swiftmud officials didn’t seem as excited about giving away preserve land around the old mining pits as he first thought, Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said. He was concerned that only one member of Swiftmud’s governing board, the one from Hernando County, knew about the county’s referendum plan.
"I want their board to buy in,’’ Holcomb said.
He agreed that the primary vote was rushed. And he worried that if the county got a yes vote, but Swiftmud said no, supportive Hernando residents would be upset.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who suggested last week that a formal vote would answer Swiftmud’s questions about a community consensus, said agency representatives he talked to last year were supportive. He agreed to move the vote to the November election.
Allocco, who is worried about the county liability of a beach park and health concerns about swimming in mine pit waters, suggested the county pick a different site for community swimming.
He mentioned Anderson Snow Park, where the county has discussed putting a splash park.
Concerns remain about access to the proposed park from busy Shoal Line Boulevard.
Several Hernando County residents spoke against the park, voicing concerns about wildlife, placing a park downwind from the county’s solid waste convenience center and sewer plant known for its bad odor, and development in the preserve, which buffers storm surge.
"We can’t afford (the parks) we have now,’’ said resident Jodie Pillarella. "Give this a rest.’’
Judy Zellmer read from a petition signed by hundreds of county residents in recent days that urged protection of the preserve because it "makes the entire County more unique and increasingly attractive as a world-class destination. The Preserve is an essential element of the old Florida charm and unblemished natural beauty of Hernando County which provide the promise of a better quality of life and a brighter economic future for all us.’’
She also chided commissioners for pushing the project when they face a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.
"This is not leadership,’’ she said.
Anthony Palmieri, a former member of the county’s planning and zoning commission, said he didn’t know if commissioners were listening to residents.
"People made it very clear to this board,’’ he said, "they did not want this project.’’
No members of the public spoke in favor of the park on Tuesday.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.