BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners on Tuesday will consider a proposed legal settlement that might finally move forward the long-awaited Hernando Beach Channel dredging project.
But it will come with a significant cost.
The project has been mired in a legal mess for months, with millions of dollars in time-sensitive state aid in jeopardy. The question has been which of two sites should the county use to dump the sand and silt dredged up from the channel.
The settlement proposes piping the stuff to the county's old wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard instead of the other site, on Eagle Nest Drive, owned by the Manuel family.
After being treated, however, 40,000 cubic yards of the material will be given free of charge to Manuel LLC. The county will also pay $196,000 to Manuel LLC.
The Manuels have a contract with Hernando County that calls for the county to put the spoils at Eagle Nest site, where it would serve as fill dirt for the firm, which intends to build waterfront homes there.
The settlement would end all terms of that contract, except one. Manuel LLC will still be allowed to keep the conditional plat approval to develop on that site, obtained in 2005, up through 2012.
The county would also counter concerns raised about water quality at the nearby Minnow Creek by agreeing to water monitoring and to suspend the dredge temporarily to fix any problems that might arise.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell, who as a legislator was instrumental in initially getting state money for the project, said Thursday he will strongly urge his fellow commissioners to accept the settlement.
"We are ready to go,'' Russell said. "The dredge will get done. It's the end of a very long 15-year war.''
Hernando officials have been talking to the parties about a settlement since the County Commission met behind closed doors two weeks ago to discuss the county's legal strategy on the case.
For several years, the county has worked to place the dredged materials on the Manuel site on Eagle Nest Drive. But nearby residents have fought the move, filing a formal objection with the state just as state environmental regulators moved to permit the site.
If the dredging is not finished by mid 2010, the county would lose $6 million in state funds essential to the $9 million project. Pressed for time, the county found another site that residents supported, the old wastewater treatment plant, and began the permitting process.
As the state prepared to issue a permit for the alternative site, Manuel LLC and other parties challenged that permit. Both challenges are now pending before a judge with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.
Since the commission's closed-door session last week, there has been a flurry of activity between the county's attorney and attorneys for the other parties concerning the timing of hearings before that judge.
If the commission accepts the settlement, Manuel and the others fighting the permit for the wastewater treatment plant site will have to withdraw their challenge. Once the county receives the permit for the wastewater treatment plant site, the county will withdraw its application for a permit on the Manuel site.
Last month, county officials estimated that placing the soils at the wastewater treatment plant site would cost $2.6 million less than the Manuel LLC site.
In a memo to commissioners, the county's special attorney for the case, Richard Brightman, noted that, "based on these cost estimates, there is an obvious economic incentive for Hernando County to use the (wastewater treatment plant) spoil disposal site.''
"This proposed settlement allows the project to move forward sooner rather than later or not at all at an overall substantial cost savings to boot,'' Russell said. "It adds surety to the process.''
Bids on the project are slated to be open April 22.
Russell said he was confident that the work can be started quickly and done in time to protect the state funding. The county had 32 interested people at a recent pre-bid conference and he said "they're chomping at the bit'' to get the work.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.