BROOKSVILLE — A property owner in eastern Hernando County won't be getting a special exception permit for a hog hunting camp after all, but that doesn't mean that camping and hunting won't continue there — at least for now.
The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday denied a permit that would have allowed camping on portions of an 82-acre site south of Cortez Boulevard and west of McKethan Road near Ridge Manor. The majority in the 4-1 vote agreed with neighbors who said the camp is not compatible with the surrounding residential area.
"We have a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of all citizens," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.
But existing ordinances and a new state law relating to agri-tourism allow hunting and camping activities on much of the property, county staffers and an attorney for the property owner told commissioners.
"What they've done hasn't damaged us a whole lot," said Christopher Mulligan, who represented owners Gerald and Ann Semeniuk.
Ron Ritter has been running the camp since 2011. During that time, neighbors have reported hearing gun blasts in the middle of the night and seeing drunken hunters on or near their property and butchered hog parts littering the Withlachoochee River.
A code enforcement officer cited the property in September because it didn't have a proper permit to operate as a hunting camp. The property is zoned agricultural, and hunting is a permitted use under the county's zoning code. A hunting camp, however, requires a special exception permit.
According to the owners' application, bow hunting areas would be designated closer to the perimeter of the property, while rifle hunting areas would be confined to the interior portion. County planning staffers recommended approval, and a divided Planning and Zoning Commission voted in May to grant the permit. The County Commission later agreed to hear an appeal.
Since then, however, Gov. Rick Scott has signed into a law a bill that restricts local governments' ability to prohibit or restrict agri-tourism in areas assessed for taxes under the state's greenbelt law, assistant county administrator Ron Pianta told commissioners on Tuesday.
A hunting camp could be considered an agri-tourism use, Pianta said, and some of the camping areas on the Semeniuk property are in the 21 greenbelted acres.
"We understand the concerns (of neighbors) and want to alleviate the concerns, but we also believe the law is the law," Mulligan said.
The camp is a safe business that helps bring people to the county and reduces the number of feral hogs, an invasive species, Mulligan said. He said relatively few shots are fired on the Semeniuks' property because the camp only offers wild game hunting.
Brooksville attorney Darryl Johnston, who represents the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association, disagreed. He argued that hunting camp is not explicitly defined by the new law as an agri-tourism activity.
"If it was just the owner hunting, my client would not have a basis to complain, and I would, quite frankly, tell them to butt out," Johnston said, but "attempting to set up narrow gun lanes on such a small piece of property, especially when it's adjacent to residential areas, borders on the nonsensical."
Johnston said using bait to attract the hogs to the property is also problematic for neighbors.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson was the lone dissenter.
"I'm not going to cost the taxpayers money if we deny this thing, they sue us and win," Nicholson said.
Mulligan said the owners will shift some of the camping areas to greenbelted acreage — and the number of acres could grow. The Semeniuks plan to appeal a recent decision by the property appraiser to reduce the number of greenbelt acres by 30.
Reach Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.