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A good flood-control plan for south Brooksville needs more explaining

Here's what Patricia Burnett, 58, has to say about a sensible, expensive and long-overdue effort to right a major historical wrong in south Brooksville:

"Why do they want to put a retention pond down on MLK?" she asks, referring to Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard, her home street and the community's main thoroughfare.

"We already have enough standing water down here. We don't need any more water."

And though this project is not being done to this neighborhood, but for it, and, if you look back to its origins, with it, she angrily adds:

The county "does what it wants in black folks' neighborhoods."

Unfortunately, this is a common opinion about the plan to control chronic flooding in this low-lying, historically black neighborhood straddling the city limits.

Many of the residents I talked to last week were hostile toward the project. Others were skeptical. None knew the details of how it will work.

Talk of improving south Brooksville finally moves beyond just talk, and hardly anyone appreciates it.

It's a sad situation, but it doesn't have to be a permanent one.

South Brooksville residents and leaders — including vocal skeptic Richard Howell — owe it to the neighborhood to learn more about the plan.

The county needs to do more to explain it and explain that it came about at the request of south Brooksville residents.

It might also help if the county recognizes why this extra explanation is needed. This neighborhood has 66 years' worth of reasons to be suspicious of government intervention.

African-Americans in Hernando County didn't choose to build their main population center on historically damp land more than 100 feet lower than downtown Brooksville.

They were forced out of former neighborhoods farther north by several means, most notoriously a 1948 zoning law that forbade "Negroes" from living north of a line near Russell Street.

Developers, including a sitting Brooksville mayor, then platted segregated subdivisions on either side of what is now M.L. King. Until about 20 years ago, the most common name for this neighborhood wasn't south Brooksville but the Sub, short for "Negro subdivisions."

Because this ground hasn't been covered in a while, and because it's important, we should look at other, related wrongs. In 1958, the city built its main sewage treatment plant in this neighborhood — next to the county's only school for black children.

Until the plant's closure a little more than a decade ago, floodwaters in south Brooksville were tainted with effluent from the leaky pipes leading to this plant.

And in 1981, the federal government issued a $2.3 million federal grant that was supposed to fix some of these drainage problems. Instead, it mostly lined the pockets of well-connected contractors and engineers.

There's more history, of course, but this should be enough to explain why south Brooksville might not welcome a flood-control plan, even though the residents helped come up with it — or at least identified better drainage as a neighborhood priority.

This was done in a series of community meetings held by former county Administrator David Hamilton between 2008 and 2010, which is when an engineering company was paid $126,720 to come up with a flood-control plan.

Understanding the main problem the engineers faced helps answer a question residents raised with me repeatedly:

Why is the county digging ponds to hold water in the neighborhood rather than deepening and clearing out drainage ditches to carry water out of it?

Because outflow is limited by the size of a culvert under the State Road 50 truck bypass that the county has no legal right to expand. The only solution to overwhelming this culvert is to hold water in ponds so it can be released gradually.

The first of these ponds is being dug on land near the corner of M.L. King and E Jefferson Street that the county bought for $120,000. As it hopes to do with all future retention basins, the county is splitting construction costs — $700,000 in this case — with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The county has hired an engineer to design the next phase: increasing the capacity of drainage ditches at Russell Street Park — land the public already owns. In addition, the County Commission has approved $155,000 to buy land south of M.L. King near Main Street to build another holding pond, a purchase that will also give the county ownership of ditches leading to and from this pond.

That gets to another issue raised by residents: Why doesn't the county clean up the weeds and bushes that are clogging these ditches? It can't, assistant county administrator for operations Brian Malmberg said, because most of them are on private property.

Putting the water in cleared ditches and ponds won't worsen the mosquito problem, another of the residents' concerns, but help address it by allowing for pest control such as stocking the ponds with larva-gobbling fish. Because the ponds allow contaminants to settle, they'll also help purify the runoff.

Finally, there will be another flood-control pond dug partly on the former site of that despised sewage treatment plant.

These ponds will be landscaped to look like parks rather than faceless holes — at least that's the plan. If everything is executed as designed, I can see how it will improve not only the drainage, but also the quality of life and property values.

And if it is explained that way to south Brooksville residents, I believe more folks would welcome it.

Some might even be as grateful as Sabrina Frazier, 44, whose house at the south end of Josephine Street has been flooded by more than a foot of water each of the past two summers.

"Thank you, Jesus," she said, when I told her about the plan. "There is a God."

A good flood-control plan for south Brooksville needs more explaining 02/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 6:48pm]

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