SPRING HILL — It is one of Hernando County's iconic locations and, to nearby neighbors worried about its future, it is under assault.
For more than 40 years, the landscaped entrance to the Spring Hill subdivision on U.S. 19 has served as both a welcome mat to home owners and visitors as well as a selling point to prospective buyers.
The heavily wooded 11 acres just north of the famous fountain, home to foxes and raccoons, also acts as a natural barrier between the homes and the noise from busy U.S. 19.
Soon, that may all change.
On Monday, the owners of the property will ask approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission to rezone the site to allow construction of medical offices.
To residents afraid of losing the green space, the plans are counter to the original concept of the community.
"When Spring Hill was being sold, it was all about the waterfall, the woods and the natural setting. That's what they used to sell the properties,'' said Dallas McCormack, who lives on nearby Alderwood Street.
"It was designed as landscape,'' she said. "The land was to be a preserve.''
"We treasure this buffer,'' added Carol McCarten. "This is a means of protecting us from the sounds, the lights of (U.S.) 19, the odors coming from the vehicles.''
The buffer "makes us feel like we're protected and part of a little community,'' she said. "Not like having a commercial entity right on your back door.''
The owners of the property say they understand the residents' concerns and have made adjustments to mitigate any problems. But they point out that they are within their rights.
"What we have done is far above what the code requires,'' said Todd Pressman, who is representing owners Kenneth, Martha and Evelyn Haber. "The site will still act as buffer, still act as landscape.''
As for the promise some said they received years ago that the property would never be developed, Pressman said, "As areas grow, things change. Circumstances change.''
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For McCarten, gathering signatures and setting community meetings to rally her neighborhood seem a bit of deja vu.
In 1988, she was among those who fought the efforts of dentist Rodney Ackley to have the same parcel rezoned so he could build a professional office complex there.
More than 200 people objected to the plan and both the Planning and Zoning Commission and County Commission rejected the proposal. Ackley ended up suing the county over the denial.
At the time, county legal staff explained that the original Spring Hill master plan called the parcel "green belt," and when zoning laws were first put into place in the early 1970s, planners accepted the master plan as the zoning map for the subdivision.
Ackley had argued that the zoning didn't apply to the parcel because it wasn't filed properly with the Secretary of State or the county, a claim the county rejected.
After months of controversy, Ackley proposed a compromise plan scaling back the project, but the commission did not consider it. Eventually the lawsuit was dismissed and Ackley abandoned plans to purchase the property from Deltona.
The neighborhood was relieved. "We just assumed that it was over,'' McCarten said.
Now, there is a new proposal.
This one envisions a medical office building that will also include a small spa and coffee shop surrounded by parking. County staff has recommended approval with conditions; the County Commission will have the final say on the project later this summer.
The plan shows a retention pond at the corner of U.S. 19 and Spring Hill Drive. The artist's rendering shows a fountain in the pond. Other water retention is shown at the north end of the site.
The only public entrance will be on U.S. 19. That entry way is a big change from the original plan presented to residents in a neighborhood meeting several months ago, which had entrances off Pinehurst near Alderwood and Newmark streets.
The developer heard the concerns of citizens and made that change, Pressman said.
He added that the developer also has reacted to complaints about the loss of their landscape area and the change to the historical entrance to the sprawling Spring Hill community.
The plan is to extensively landscape along the U.S. 19 side of the property, incorporating the style of the short red brick columns currently on the site into a landscaped fence wrapping around the corner at the Spring Hill entrance, according to the rendering of the project.
Some of the heavy tree cover on Pinehurst will stay and that side will also be planted.
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In 1995, Spring Hill developer Deltona sold the 11 acres to the Habers for $5,800. The parcel currently is valued at $236,000.
Residents cite the low purchase price as an indication that the developer, Deltona, never anticipated that anyone would develop the parcel.
"I don't have a problem with someone finding a bargain, but not when it is at the expense of the character of a community,'' said Collins Conner, a former Times reporter who lives nearby.
McCormack said she doesn't find fault with Dr. Pariksith Singh's plan to open new offices in the proposed Access Health Medical Mall. But she pointed out that within half a mile there are empty offices and a big empty Kmart building that she said are more appropriate locations.
The people who bought the parcel, she said, "took a gamble'' that they could push through a development on the site.
Jeannie Bingham is another resident who was convinced that her home would always be protected by the woods. "We were concerned when we bought because it was so close to (U.S.) 19,'' she said. "It was a selling point.''
Pressman said residents should know that every effort will be made to answer their concerns, and they should be glad to know who is developing the project.
Access Health Care is "a first class, top-tier organization'' and is going to do the project right, he said. "This is a quality organization that has a track record in the county.
"This site,'' he said, "will be a jewel for the Spring Hill area.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.