HERNANDO BEACH — Narrow, flood-prone roads. A mix of stilt houses and homes hugging the ground. Rows of shrimp boats along the water's edge. Miles of sawgrass dotted with palm trees.
These are the details in the fingerprint of coastal Hernando County.
The unique features, from the limited evacuation routes to the absence of pedestrian walkways, bring a distinct set of challenges to county officials who are charged with providing services in Pine Island, Weeki Wachee, Bayport, Hernando Beach and Aripeka.
In recent years, the county has initiated two very visible improvements.
In late 2007, it spent $1.24 million to improve and expand Bayport Park. And after years of environmental and legal challenges, dredging of the Hernando Beach channel began this fall, a multimillion-dollar project that many hope will spark an economic resurgence for the area.
That is how work has always gotten done in Hernando County's neighborhoods — county projects answering needs. But oftentimes, the priority list was generated at the county government center.
Now community members — those most familiar with their own neighborhoods' flavor and challenges — are in the driver's seat.
In early April, at the request of 30-year resident Fran Baird, the county chose coastal Hernando for the second of its community initiative teams. The first is in south Brooksville, where a team already has a conceptual plan to revitalize the long-forgotten neighborhood through a series of water, sewer, drainage, lighting and transportation projects.
Baird, who has spearheaded a variety of projects in the Hernando Beach area, ranging from the eradication of nonnative Brazilian pepper plants to the painting of the water tower, said she wanted Hernando's coastal communities on the map as well.
"Hey, the west side needs a lot of things," Baird said.
She contacted Commissioner Rose Rocco, and the Coastal Hernando Initiatives Project was born.
Headed up by Rocco and comprised of a small group of local business leaders and residents, the CHIP team has already had some success, such as the lighting of the county boat ramp and turning street lights back on along Shoal Line Boulevard.
Rocco said the effort makes sense. What better way to provide the unique assistance Hernando's coastal communities need than to ask the people who live there?
"If we don't know what the needs are, we can't fix them," Rocco said.
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It didn't take long for members of the initiatives group to brainstorm a list of projects they believe the community needs to enhance safety and improve the quality of life.
On top of the list is an ambitious trail project, dubbed the Nature Coast Boardwalk, that would give pedestrians, strollers, wheelchairs and bicycles access to a portion of the Weekiwachee Preserve.
The group proposes to start by running the boardwalk from the preserve entrance on Shoal Line Boulevard north to Linda Pedersen Park.
"We need a safe walkway through this community," Baird said.
Those kinds of amenities will be especially important when the economy turns around and tourists again begin to open their wallets and seek destinations along the Nature Coast that offer a view of nature, Rocco said.
Officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District have expressed some environmental concerns about the proposal, but discussions are ongoing.
The group also has proposed emergency lanes on Shoal Line Boulevard because there is no room for a car to pull off the road without landing in the water. Because the space that can be used by the county along the roadway is limited, the committee has also discussed an alternative: 4-foot shoulders such as those on County Road 550.
That project would cost an estimated $362,000 if the road were widened from Calienta Street to Osowaw Boulevard.
A wide network of sidewalks and bike trails is also on the community's wish list. Members of the CHIP group agreed that a sidewalk along Shoal Line from Porpoise Street to Richard Drive, in the Weeki Wachee Gardens area, would be the first priority. Discussions about other locations and funding methods continue.
A paid fire department staff rather than volunteers, more fire hydrants and a fix to Pine Island drainage issues are other items on the list, without concrete plans.
As for the idea of widening and repaving County Road 550 from Shoal Line to Bayport, county staffers have told the group that resurfacing along that stretch is planned, but there is currently no money.
There are plans for paving Cofer Road, near the Mud River, another of the team's priorities.
Future discussions may involve water quality projects and another artificial reef, team members said.
The group is realistic about the chances of getting everything on the wish list, especially since money is tight.
"If we get five out of 10, it's an enhancement to the community," said CHIP member Jim Smith.
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Gathering suggestions for what the coastal communities needed wasn't difficult. Each group member is involved with a number of community projects and organizations, and that allowed them to share their neighbors' concerns.
They assembled their list after establishing priorities: what would make the area safer, more attractive to tourism and business development, and more functional.
County staffers attend the meetings, and County Administrator David Hamilton has visited frequently. They have kept the group grounded in the realities of rules, regulations, existing conditions that can't be changed and ongoing funding challenges, Rocco said.
She is excited about what she sees as the potential of the team's efforts.
"We've got a gem here in Hernando County," Rocco said. "We have it all — the environment, the airport, the Suncoast Parkway — everything we need to attract business. We just have to promote the culture, the atmosphere to make them want to stay here."
By involving community members in the process, "we get buy-in," she said.
That means instead of telling the coastal residents what the county is going to do for them, there is a dialogue.
Team members see that the system allows them to be heard, while giving them the opportunity to remind county officials who their customers are.
"There's power in numbers," said CHIP member Roger Davidson. "It's nice to have more people involved."
Baird said she feels the initiatives team approach allows county officials to connect better with residents.
"I like that we have the county administrator out here listening to what we need. We have the engineer standing right here," Baird said.
County Engineer Charles Mixson said it's been "a learning experience" for both sides.
"Some of the things they have in the plan we were able to get done, and other things are more complicated," Mixson said. "I think it's working very well. It's an open communication."
"This puts the unity back in community," she said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.