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Donations motivate Rocco's new support of Quarry Preserve

Actually, I was kind of glad to see Commissioner Rose Rocco's kowtowing performance at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

Because you often hear about the influence of money in politics, but you rarely get such a clear look at how it is applied; you rarely get such a good opportunity to lift up the hood of government and see its grimy works.

To review: In January, Rocco voted against the massive Quarry Preserve, a so-called "new town'' of 13,000 planned for an old mining pit 6 miles north of Brooksville.

She was in the minority, so it seemed a gutsy vote. It was also the right one, considering county planners and Administrator David Hamilton had told the commission the Quarry would force the county to rewrite its long-range transportation plan and potentially put taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars worth of road improvements.

Now it seems as though this vote was meant to appease the county's small contingent of antisprawl activists, who could have only been a worry to Rocco if they'd managed to raise a challenger in the Democratic primary election.

On Tuesday, with that potential threat passed, she not only voted for the Quarry, she came across as its main cheerleader on the commission.

Before we move on to the money issue, let's look at what she said and how she justified changing her mind.

She was impressed with the landscape, saying it was "unique'' and "looks like something out of Arizona.''

That's one comparison for thousands of acres stripped of all topsoil and vegetation. The most common one was used by the Tallahassee development lawyer presenting the Quarry's case, Jake Varn. A "moonscape,'' he called it.

She also said the Quarry would "not put the impact on the people of Hernando County.''

Maybe she was referring to the developer's $62 million contribution to widen U.S. 98. Fair enough. Except this means the county will then have to widen Cobb Road — which it otherwise had no plans to do — at an expected cost of $60 million to $70 million, said county transportation coordinator Dennis Dix. As a point of reference, that's more than the total amount the county government will collect this year in property tax. So, yes, that's an impact.

Rocco also said the plan "was different than what was presented before.''

Maybe slightly. One of the three planned golf courses is gone. To satisfy the state agency reviewing the project — or try to satisfy, I should say, because that department could still find it not in compliance — the developer agreed to requirements that ensure it really builds a town and not a housing development. It strengthened a wildlife management plan and drew its promised wildlife corridor on the map.

But the number of houses and apartments – 5,800 — didn't change. Neither did much else about a project that both the county and state had earlier said showed several signs of sprawl.

Never mind. Rocco was so impressed she said that the Quarry was "setting new standards'' for development in Hernando, which may sound familiar. It's almost exactly what she said when she backtracked on her word to community activists and voted for the Hickory Hill development, east of Brooksville, in 2007.

The next year, Rocco got to see what happened to the one commissioner who opposed Hickory Hill, Diane Rowden. Realtors, builders and major landowners ganged up on her in the County Commission election, and among those who contributed to a soft-money fund that helped seal her defeat were developer and former mining engineer Tommy Bronson and Tom Barnette, a Brooksville businessman who worked as a lobbyist for the developer of Hickory Hill.

They were also among the hosts of the fundraiser for Rocco at Bronson's house north of Brooksville last August that got her re-election campaign off to a flying start.

In a single reporting period, from July through September of last year, she raised $6,910, nearly half of her most recently reported total of $14,485. This accounts, almost precisely, for her fundraising lead over her Republican opponent, Wayne Dukes, who has collected $7,649.

Thirty-four of the checks to Rocco's campaign were written on the day of the fundraiser, including one for $500 from Barnette's educational travel business, Euro-American Tours. Bronson followed up a few days later with a $500 donation of his own.

That's quite a debt. Of course I don't know exactly what they expected in return, but you can bet they didn't put their money and reputations behind a candidate they thought would crusade against sprawl.

Rocco said the contributions of Barnette and especially Bronson — who of the two has far more influence in pulling in other donations — had nothing to do with her decision to change her vote.

But since she failed miserably to provide another legitimate reason when she had the chance in a public forum, you can only assume it did.

Donations motivate Rocco's new support of Quarry Preserve 09/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 1:13pm]

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