HERNANDO BEACH — The public meeting Thursday night to discuss controversial plans for the Nature Coast Educational Plaza and Nature Coast Lodge started on a high point.
Blue Pelican Marina owner Gordon Wolf addressed more than 250 Hernando Beach residents jammed into the Coast Guard Auxiliary building and overflowing into the parking lot.
The meeting had been requested by the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission when it recommended approval of the rezoning needed to make Wolf's vision a reality. The County Commission will have the final say on May 13.
"This is fantastic,'' Wolf said with a big smile as he admired the large turnout.
He said he was pleased to have the opportunity to educate so many people about his plans to expand the marina, help the county solve congestion and parking problems at the public boat ramp, build the lodge and help the county build an environmental education center.
Just minutes into the presentation, however, former Planning and Zoning Commission member Larry Scott questioned why the county was not requiring of Wolf the same promises of providing infrastructure that would have been demanded in the past.
Soon, the meeting deteriorated into personal attacks, shouting among residents, a physical tug of war among several people over the microphone and a flurry of residents who pleaded for civility.
At one point, when Wolf said future studies would show the project's impact on the community, one woman posed a question: "Are you going into this not knowing what impact you're going to have on this community? Are you kidding?"
When Wolf's brother, Ron, described in detail the education center's museum, visitors center and theater — all designed to promote the environment — one woman called out: "Put all the lipstick you want on it. It's still a pig.''
"Oink, oink,'' another member of the audience responded.
While some people voiced support for the project, most asked questions and spoke against it, at least in its current form. They took issue with the funding, the impact on the environment and the added traffic on roads. They also wondered why the plans' details only surfaced recently.
The Wolf brothers said they wanted to promote the Nature Coast and provide a draw for tourism. They could have sought a commercial designation for the half-dozen upland acres on their 31-acre parcel, they noted, but chose the more restrictive resort residential zoning.
That fits better with the marina, they said. They also told residents that if the county doesn't get a $3 million allocation from the Florida Legislature, the education center will not be built. Settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill might also cover some of the costs, county officials have said.
Hernando Beach resident Forrest Bennett maintained that a more appropriate place for the educational plaza would be on the site of the Osowaw Boulevard wastewater treatment plant, which will soon be decommissioned.
But the Wolfs have contended there is more educational value to having the center beside the marina because people could see and interact with the coastal environment.