SPRING HILL — Under a bright blue sky streaked with wispy clouds, Hernando County spokeswoman Virginia Singer described the cracker-style building planned for the palmetto-dotted site behind her.
Rocking chairs would circle the veranda, catching the wafting breezes. Tourists and locals would enjoy the setting while they learned about the surrounding environment.
Spring Hill resident Mary Ellen Smith rode her bike into the midst of the officials, reporters and residents who had gathered around Singer on Friday morning at the Weekiwachee Preserve, which is managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Once Smith caught on to what the presentation was about, she questioned the cost and voiced concern about disturbing a place where residents go for the peace and the wildlife.
"I absolutely do not agree with what you're doing,'' she said.
The tourist center that Singer described is the first part of a county plan that may also include a beach, cabanas, expansive parking lots and a sports field in the 11,206-acre preserve.
By moving the tourist center there from its original location in Hernando Beach, the county avoided one controversy but created another — the placement of a busy recreational area in the midst of a natural preserve.
Such properties are purchased by the district for both conservation and recreation, said Carmen Sanders, land management manager for the agency commonly called Swiftmud. The trick, she said, is in finding the right mix.
"It's never easy in determining what that balance is,'' Sanders said.
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Kevin Love said he has no doubt where to draw that line.
Preserves are bought for a reason, including protecting water and habitat, said Love, a 35-year veteran of Swiftmud who oversaw the Weekiwachee Preserve and more than two dozen other Swiftmud properties before he was forced to retire in 2012; the Weekiwachee is also part of other state and federal lands that create a corridor of protection along the coast.
"One of those reasons is not to develop a tourism center or develop it as an economic engine for the local economy. That is contrary to and in violation of the acquisition goals,'' Love said.
He also took issue with one of the county's assertions — that a former mine in the preserve did so much damage that the beach and education center would have little impact on habitat.
"The notion that the mine pits are a moonscape with no ecological value whatsoever, that's not true, but there is no one left at the water management district that knows the difference,'' Love said.
While the site will never be what it was before mining, it has seen the growth of cedars and cabbage palms and has become "a really productive grassland," he said.
Love said his concerns are aimed mostly at Swiftmud because it has a mandate to protect natural land.
"This is a statewide asset," he said. "It's not a Hernando Beach asset. It's not a Hernando County asset.''
Linda Prescott is a Hernando Beach resident who also believes the preserve is the wrong place to draw tourists. While residents can currently only enter the site by car two days a month, the plan would open the site for drivers every day. Visitors would share that road with all kinds of wildlife from alligators to gopher tortoises and ducks to bears.
She said she found it interesting that County Administrator Len Sossamon has touted the preserve site as a perfect location for the center and what he is calling the "Nature Coast Experience.''
"Is there going to be a nature experience when all the nature leaves?'' she asked.
Prescott's friend, the late Arline Erdrich, who was instrumental in securing the preserve, was about to be memorialized with a plaque and planting near what is now designated as the proposed beach. Prescott said that will have to be moved.
"I know this wouldn't be her vision,'' she said. "She intended for it to be used just like it is now. A preserve. A road less traveled.''
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When the media and agency entourage made their first stop on Friday morning to view the proposed site for the 20-acre beach on the banks of a groundwater-filled mining pit, Jude Simpson was waiting nearby. The Hernando Beach resident heads the community's property owners association, but she was speaking as a private citizen.
She asked officials why they would plan such an encroachment on the preserve when they could simply improve an existing swimming area at nearby Linda Pedersen Park.
"The county feels that this is the ideal location,'' Singer responded.
Clara Adkins said she was impressed at what she saw in the preserve and noted that she had never been there before.
"I think it's a treasure for Hernando County,'' she said. Her husband, County Commissioner Jim Adkins, said the proposal is "a very good use for this property.''
As he looked out over the lake, he said, "I can only visualize my grandson out there.''
Singer stressed that the development of the site would mean a constant presence on the land to make sure that rules were being followed there.
The project is not a done deal, she said, and residents can come to planned public input sessions in Hernando Beach on Wednesday and Brooksville on Thursday.
Sanders, from Swiftmud, said her agency was eager to see the public comment on the proposal. The Swiftmud governing board will hear details in the coming months and will ultimately have to sign off on the plan.
The same residents who opposed the first location of the tourist center, next to the Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach, rallied to write more than 80 letters to save the state funding for the project. The leader of that campaign, Forrest Bennett, said he supports the preserve location.
"Frankly, I'd like to keep this undiscovered jewel to myself and the small number of regular users,'' he said. "However, it's selfish not to share a … taxpayer-funded preserve with others in an environmentally sensitive manner.''