BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission’s plans for a beach and park in the Weekiwachee Preserve near Hernando Beach are too ambitious. They don’t take enough stakeholders into account, fail to address conservation requirements of the sensitive lands and are too premature to even consider asking for a referendum vote.
The director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, sent those strong messages in a letter to the county late Tuesday. Swiftmud owns the 11,206-acre preserve.
The first formal response from the agency came just hours after another unannounced discussion at Tuesday’s commission meeting to push the project forward.
Commission Chairman Steve Champion, the primary cheerleader for the proposed recreation area, told fellow commissioners that new information could mean the county doesn’t need Swiftmud’s approval to put a park referendum on the November ballot. In fact, he said, the county may have paid $75,000 in taxes years ago to create recreation at the site.
Champion’s comments brought more criticism from local residents opposed to the park. Some came to the commission meeting after voicing their opposition to the plan at the Swiftmud governing board meeting held in Brooksville. Speakers presented 2,700 signed petitions they collected against the park.
For months, commissioners discussed their beach plan and spent money on concept drawings, water testing and other expenses. The only public discussion of their contact with Swiftmud was a reference to a meeting several weeks ago. However, Champion told the Times that he and other county officials met with top Swiftmud officials who had expressed support for the concept.
"We wouldn’t have spent money on the plan unless Swiftmud was in favor,’’ Champion said Wednesday.’
On Tuesday afternoon, the water management district delivered a different and blunt message about how wrong the county was in many of its assumptions about its recreation plans.
In a letter to county administrator Len Sossamon, Brian Armstrong, executive director of Swiftmud, made it clear that the preserve belongs to them, was bought for conservation purposes and must maintain that focus.
The county’s plan, which includes a beach on a former rock mining lake in the preserve, activity areas, a kayak launch, fishing piers and a parking lot for approximately 550 vehicles is "intensely in excess of that to which the district, and our conservation partners, are accustomed,’’ Armstrong wrote.
Any plan would have to be "commensurate with that found in other district properties,’’ he said.
Swiftmud has no interest in a park entrance on Osowaw Boulevard, he said, which would impact a black bear corridor. Putting a park entrance on Shoal Line Boulevard has drawn opposition over the years from coastal residents.
"Accordingly, the district will only entertain proposals showing no more than 250 parking spaces,’’ Armstrong wrote. A similar recreation proposal was shot down in 2002 after strong public opposition.
Public opposition also ended plans for a beach and recreation area in 2014, when the county was trying to site a state- and county-funded education and tourism center, something Sossamon remembers well. Sossamon told commissioners Tuesday he takes the blame for things that go wrong, but he is not the person pushing this beach idea.
Champion and Commissioner Wayne Dukes strongly support the beach park and a referendum to ask county voters their opinion. Swiftmud’s executive director discouraged a referendum until after parties work out a required land swap and measure stakeholder opinions.
The county must return any property offered in trade to Swiftmud in a natural state, Armstrong said. The parcel Swiftmud wants from the county is behind the Hernando Beach Water Tower. It has been used as a wastewater treatment plant, a place to dump matter dredged from the Hernando Beach Channel and a storage site for debris, including concrete culverts. It will require work to restore.
Commissioners are concerned with what Hernando voters might want, Armstrong wrote, but Swiftmud represents 16 counties and numerous conservation partners.
"Groups such as the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Native Plant Society and Gulf Coast Conservancy, to name a few, are informed and engaged stakeholders,’’ Armstrong wrote. "The district values being a good neighbor. The district would expect the county to engage with our various stakeholders for input and feedback both at present and in the future, should the proposed project proceed.’’
During the commission meeting, Hernando County resident Caleb Marion told Dukes he had no trouble gathering signatures against the park in Dukes’ neighborhood of Hernando Beach.
"Your people in your community don’t want this project,’’ he said.
Area resident Jodie Pillarella blasted commissioners for spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a project they don’t know will be approved. She criticized them for discussing the plan again without advertising it on their agenda. Clearly, residents care about the issue, she said.
At the Swiftmud meeting, Hernando Beach resident Judy Zellmer blasted commissioners for a series of bad spending decisions about projects that have not worked out. Commissioners fail to hear opposition to their plan, she said.
"Do what our commission cannot and will not do,’’ she urged the Swiftmud board. "Stop this insanity in its tracks.’’
Champion said he was disappointed in the letter from Armstrong. but that county officials will continue to research their options. He said he will ask for a larger discussion of recreation expansion opportunities, possibly at Anderson Snow Park, at the July 10 commission meeting.
"I think this is going to squash it,’’ he said. "If we don’t have any recourse, we’re going to have to drop it.
"We really were trying to do the right thing.’’
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.