HERNANDO BEACH — Residents of Hernando Beach and visitors to the waterfront have been patient.
For more than a dozen years, they have endured the ups and downs of a proposed dredging project tied up in one legal or environmental challenge after another.
Now that the Hernando Beach Channel actually is about to be dredged, people want to know just how the work will affect them.
More than 200 of them jammed into the Coast Guard Auxiliary building Wednesday evening to find out themselves. Most were delighted to hear that the project is expected to be done by February, ahead of schedule.
The work to widen, straighten, lengthen and deepen the channel might cause some slowdowns for boat traffic. But the crowd was told there is no plan to close the channel, a busy artery for recreational and commercial boaters, unless there is an emergency.
County Public Works Director Charles Mixson explained the scope of the work and the details of how the sand and muck from the channel will be sucked out and piped to a disposal site at the county's old wastewater treatment plant on the east side of Shoal Line Boulevard. Rocks will be removed and placed on existing spoil islands close to the shore.
New channel markers will be installed. There will be fewer signs, but they will be larger, Mixson said. New areas will be set aside for sea grass, and boaters won't be able to use those areas.
Sea grass will be harvested from the existing channel and replanted in those new areas beginning next month.
Dredging is set to begin in two to three months. Workers are expected to be on site seven days a week from dawn to dusk to get the job done.
When completed, the channel will be 6 feet deep, 60 feet wide and extend about 3 miles to Watts Tower. The channel will also be straightened to eliminate a dangerous blind turn.
The dredge operator will work with area boaters to maintain safe passage during the work, according to Curtis Huggins, president of Orion Marine Group, the contractor. "We're not going to stop up the channel. We're not going to eliminate access.''
But he asked for help from boaters as well, noting that he has seen some operators moving quickly in the waters. "Give us some notice before you blow up on us,'' he said.
The contractor introduced the audience to "Mr. O," the name of the dredging equipment. Huggins and the others answered a series of questions about the equipment and about the operation.
County Commissioner Rose Rocco voiced the same sentiment that had been whispered through the room before the meeting started.
"We're all very happy to see this project go forward,'' she said.
The only moment that hinted at the division that the legal issues created within the community was some laughter after a comment by Mixson that, once the dredging is done, a maintenance dredging should follow within 10 years, as the permits would be easier to obtain.
Likening the dredging to a road project that leads to short-term inconvenience and delays, Mixson urged residents to be understanding.
"It's going to take a little bit of patience on your part,'' he said. "Be patient with us and work with the contractor.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.