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Plan for preserve education center loses support of Hernando commissioner

County residents attend a public meeting at the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary on Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach on the proposed site to build the Nature Coast education and tourism center in the Weeki Wachee State Preserve on Thursday, June 12, 2014.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

County residents attend a public meeting at the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary on Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach on the proposed site to build the Nature Coast education and tourism center in the Weeki Wachee State Preserve on Thursday, June 12, 2014.

BROOKSVILLE — The effort to place an environmental education and tourism center in a mined-out portion of the Weekiwachee Preserve has lost one vocal supporter — Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden.

Two public meetings last week brought out a substantial number of opponents, including several former top officials from the Southwest Florida Water Management District who were instrumental in acquiring and managing the 11,000-acre preserve in the 1990s.

At one session, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy, Charles Lee, told county officials that the preserve is an important area for birds, hosting rare migratory sparrows and water bird rookeries.

Lee said he would argue against the plan before the Swiftmud governing board.

"Florida Audubon urges you to take a step back,'' he said.

Former Swiftmud executive director Sonny Vergara has sent a letter opposing the plan to Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon.

Rowden said she heard the voices of her constituents, especially the former water management agency officials, and realized that she had not done enough research before deciding to push for construction of the multimillion-dollar Nature Coast Experience center inside the boundaries of the preserve.

"The people who spoke didn't just speak with emotion; they spoke with scientific information,'' she said.

Rowden said she also took to heart arguments that the county cannot even afford to maintain its existing parks and would be stretched thin by having another major facility to keep up. The education center proposal also includes a man-made beach on one of the lakes left behind by the mining operation on the property.

The project is to be funded by a $3 million state allocation, plus a $3 million match by the county.

In his letter to Sossamon, Vergara urged the administrator to find another site for the project. He described the long and difficult history of preserving nature in Florida.

"If we do not preserve a large part of what's left of Florida's natural habitat, we will exploit it and use it until it is destroyed, and the very reasons why Florida has become a global destination in the first place will be destroyed along with it,'' Vergara wrote.

Sossamon said no other commissioners have abandoned the idea of placing the center in the preserve. County staffers, however, are using public comments to tweak the proposal and minimize some of the impact on the preserve while they also explore alternative sites to bring to the County Commission next month.

Other sites suggested during recent discussions have included the county water tower site on Shoal Line Boulevard, the site of the Osowaw Boulevard wastewater treatment plant once it is decommissioned, a site at the entrance to the Weekiwachee Preserve on Osowaw, a preserve entrance off Shoal Line Boulevard and the Lake House in Spring Hill, which the county just purchased.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Plan for preserve education center loses support of Hernando commissioner 06/20/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014 9:08pm]
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