BROOKSVILLE — At long last, county commissioners are taking the final steps toward beginning the dredge of the Hernando Beach Channel.
Commissioners today will consider paying $5,040,385 to the low bidder on the project, Subaqueous Services LLC.
They also will boost the contract of their consultant on the project, Halcrow Inc., by $1,053,153, more than doubling what the firm has already been paid to acquire the state and federal permits.
This summer, work will begin to widen, lengthen, deepen and straighten the Hernando Beach Channel; replace navigational markers; plant sea grasses, mark sea grass beds, and dispose of the spoils.
The details will be explained to residents in a public meeting in the coming weeks, according to Charles Mixson, public works director. The project is expected to be completed by next summer.
But to Commissioner Rose Rocco, whose district includes Hernando Beach, the impacts will be obvious. She sees the project as the first step in revitalizing the community, where residents have been unable to fully enjoy the waterfront.
"If you're living on the channel and you have a boat and you can't take it out, how pathetic is that,'' she said.
Beyond just helping the waterfront home owners and boat owners, Rocco said this project has been needed to kick-start the small businesses and the fishing industry, which have been waiting for the dredge for so long.
"This is going to be an economic boon,'' she said. "This is going to be real positive, not just for Hernando Beach but across the county.''
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The dredging project has been mired in bureaucracy, environmental review and legal wrangling that have dragged the work out for more than a dozen years since it was originally envisioned.
During that time, the channel has grown more shallow and more dangerous. But the danger wasn't just to boaters.
As the legal arguments piled up, Hernando County came close to losing $6 million in state aid for the project. The county is matching that with $3 million.
For the last couple of years, the county had eyed property owned by Manuel LLC on Eagle Nest Drive as a spoils disposal site. Neighbors, however, filed a legal challenge, effectively delaying a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The project has to be completed by June 2010 or else risk losing the state money. As the clock ticked, the prospect of losing the state money loomed larger.
Manuel LLC and other parties challenged the county's alternative plan, to dump the spoils at the county's old wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard.
Commissioners ultimately settled with Manuel LLC and agreed to pay $196,000, provide at least 40,000 cubic yards of fill (the dried-out spoils) and to monitor the water quality around the Shoal Line site.
The cost of the settlement, while daunting, could have been much higher.
Transcripts just released of the County Commission's closed-doors legal strategy sessions reveal that Manuel LLC and the other parties fighting the Shoal Line site had sought $325,000 in cash.
The county had a legally binding easement agreement with the Manuels to use the Eagle Nest site, which tied up the property where the Manuels intended to build a small waterfront subdivision.
During the strategy discussions, Richard Brightman, the county's special attorney on the project, told the commissioners that Manuel's attorney Jake Varn tried to tie the spoils site settlement to that projected development.
Varn suggested writing into the settlement an agreement to reduce the density of the development from 11 units to six "and allowing the county to take credit for forcing them to lower the density,'' Brightman said, according to the transcript.
Brightman said he believed Manuel wanted to lower the density so that he would need less fill.
County Attorney Garth Coller put the brakes on any such arrangement.
"I think this is a trap for the unwary, and this is where my job comes in and stops us from doing stupid things,'' he said. "I would strongly advise you not to do that because it's illegal.''
County Administrator David Hamilton noted that the project had changed dramatically over time.
"Somehow, this had turned into a dredge project and a land development project,'' he said, and the county had to get it back to being solely a dredge project. The land development, he said, is another whole set of issues.
Brightman also was concerned that if the county's settlement included trucking the spoils from the Shoal Line site to Manuel's property, there could be an appearance problem for the county.
"Although I promised I wouldn't delve into Hernando County politics when Mr. Hamilton hired me, perhaps the greatest disadvantage of settlement is any appearance of county complicity in the development of Manuel's properties,'' he said.
The settlement finally approved provides for at least 40,000 cubic yards of fill to be available to Manuel after it has been treated at the Shoal Line site.
Near the end of their closed-door meeting, commissioners said they wanted to be sure that it was known that Manuel would still need to go through whatever permitting was necessary to place the fill on his property.
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With the state permit in hand for the Shoal Line site, the county now only needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mixson said he expects that to be issued very soon.
Concerns about sea grass destruction are one area of scrutiny for the Army Corps and National Marine Fisheries Service. It's also one of the main items listed in Halcrow's request for more money.
New sea grass beds will be planted with grasses harvested from the channel. That adds $370,000 to the cost.
In addition, the county's settlement with Manuel LLC and the other parties will require another $42,000 for water monitoring.
Additional water quality monitoring during the dredge and basic oversight and management and inspection of the project round out the additional costs requested by Halcrow.
Subaqueous Services LLC of Jacksonville was one of three firms to submit bids. The other two bidders submitted $2 million to $3 million higher.
County officials checked into the firm after information came to light that a corporation of a similar name and some of the same corporate officers was the subject of an FBI probe.
The firm also had to return to a dredge job it had done recently in Naples after officials there said the company had left before all the work was complete.
In the Naples case, Subaqueous returned when it learned of the problem and still completed the dredge on time. Collier County officials even wrote a letter of reference for Subaqueous.
Officials with the parent company of Subaqueous have said the issues related to the FBI probe occurred before the new corporation was formed and that the individual under investigation did not come over to the new firm.
Mixson noted that, even with the last-minute costs and challenges, the dredge project will come in well under budget and will finally accomplish the channel safety it was designed for in the first place.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.
Hernando Beach Channel dredge
$5,040,385 Low bid by Subaqueous Services LLC
$924,585 What the county has agreed to pay Halcrow Inc. to date
$1,053,153 Additional amount requested by Halcrow Inc.
$87,241.17 Amount billed to date by special attorney Richard Brightman
$196,000 Cash settlement with Manuel LLC and other parties that challenged the county's permit
40,000 Minimum number of cubic yards of spoil materials available to Manuel LLC for fill
Source: Hernando County Commission documents