BROOKSVILLE — Bogged down in controversy and litigation, the Hernando Beach channel dredging project has languished for 12 years while residents and businesses have clamored for its completion.
Now, the county may have a solution to the latest entanglement: where to dump the wet sand and materials that will be dredged from the clogged channel.
County Commissioners on Tuesday will decide whether to have their consultants study a new dump site: the old Hernando Beach wastewater treatment plant. This county-owned property, more than 50 acres on the west side of Shoal Line Boulevard, is surrounded by the Weeki Wachee Preserve.
County Administrator David Hamilton said that, with the recent legal challenges filed by Hernando Beach residents, the county needed to look at a way to get the project back on track before risking the $6-million in state money pledged to the $9-million project.
"If the time line is jeopardizing the project, then the main issue is to get the long-awaited project moving, to get the sand out of the sea and onto land,'' he said.
The biggest advantage of the new site may be what the site is not: land on Eagle Nest Drive owned by the prominent Manuel family.
The county has been trying for years to permit that location for a spoils dump, but the site is slated for development and neighbors have complained for years that the spoils would essentially be free fill dirt that would raise the property higher above sea level and make it more valuable for development.
They also say the county's ardor to make that the dump site has been detrimental to taxpayers and the environment.
More than two dozen opponents of the Eagle Nest spoils site have challenged the state Department of Environmental Protection's plans to issue a permit for the work.
Area residents Ed, Ann and Carol Oz have asked for a hearing on their concerns, which is set for an administrative law judge on Oct. 22 and 23 in Brooksville.
Another group of residents is also seeking a hearing, but that date is not yet set. A third group of residents did not file their objections by the state's deadline, but still can fight to be heard.
Another complication has been that, since the Eagle Nest site is in the zone most at risk for flooding in a storm event or an especially high tide, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was requiring the county to conduct a flood study in order to put fill on that site.
The county's wastewater plant site would not require that.
Also, the wastewater plant is large enough to hold all 50,000 cubic yards of spoils the dredging is expected to produce. Because the site has a bermed area used for drying sludge, that area would work for placement of the spoils, according to a memo by assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton.
Sutton argues that, while the cost of piping the spoils to the more distant county-owned site would be higher, the costs could be offset. The county would not need to truck the materials to various locations, not have to build a containment area, not have to pay for a flood study and not have to pay legal costs associated with the administrative hearings.
If the county uses its own property and keeps the fill dirt for its own uses, it can further save money. The county has paid $62,000 to the state for the value of the dredged sand. But if the county uses the sand for public use, such as to improve county parks, Hernando could ask for a refund, according to Assistant County Attorney Geoffrey Kirk.
Several months ago, the County Commission approved an extension in the contract to use the Manuel family's land on Eagle Nest to place the spoils. But Kirk said the county attorney's opinion is that the agreement means the county "has a right, not an obligation'' to use that site.
In addition, a provision in the agreement that allows the county to back out if a permit cannot be obtained can be cited now that the permit process has landed in litigation.
The residents challenging the Eagle Nest site issued a statement Friday on the county's effort to find another site.
"We are encouraged by the consideration of the alternate spoil site,'' they stated in an e-mail to the Times.
"We are hopeful that with the direction of David Hamilton (the new county administrator), that the County Commissioners will exercise good judgment and choose the alternative site that does not negatively impact our environment or the residents.''
"This would be a win-win situation for both the county and the residents in the Eagle Nest Drive area and staff would recommend approval,'' Sutton wrote in his memo.
State officials have already visited the property and expressed an open attitude toward considering a permit there. Sutton could not predict how long that might take.
Hamilton said the critical issue was getting the dredge completed.
"My job, the way I see it, is finding a way or an alternative way or whatever way is workable to get the job done,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.