HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando County officials tested the water this week on a plan to create a beach and build a tourism center inside the Weekiwachee Preserve.
The public response was a flood of opposition.
More than 100 people crowded into the Coast Guard Auxiliary building in Hernando Beach Wednesday afternoon to hear the proposal for the venue, which the county calls the Nature Coast Experience.
Almost all of the speakers opposed it. Only a couple of audience members spoke in favor of aspects of the project, which would be funded by $3 million from the state and $3 million in local funds.
Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon told people the proposal was "not a done deal'' and that public input was important.
Brian Malmberg, assistant administrator, explained the plan, telling the crowd that the education center and the beach would be built using one of the man-made lakes left behind by mining on the site decades ago. The goal, he explained, was to create a gateway to the Nature Coast on 40 to 50 acres of the 11,000-acre preserve.
But the project is not just about the preserve, which is managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or about the Hernando Beach area, he said. The idea is also to lure visitors to enjoy all the ecotourism activities available in the county; the education center would be a "central one-stop shop" to provide information about visitors' options, Malmberg said.
"What part of a nature preserve is not understood,'' asked the first speaker, Anna Terry of Weeki Wachee. What the county was creating, she said, "will be an experience but you can leave the word 'nature' out of it.''
Spring Hill resident Bev Hansen, a member of the Hernando County Audubon Society, worried about the effect on the preserve's abundant bird life. There have been 253 species found there over the last 23 years, including the protected Florida scrub jay, and the lakes serve as rookeries for herons and egrets.
"This is a real threat to these birds,'' Hansen said.
Hernando Beach resident Jude Simpson said she worried not only about the effect on the environment but also how the county would pay to operate the center and where the local money is coming from.
"This project is going to hurt everybody's pocket,'' she said.
Simpson also noted that the county faces liability issues because the beach would be in a location where there are bears, bobcats and quicksand.
Fritz Musselmann, retired land resources manager for Swiftmud, asked why the county hadn't coordinated with Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which also has an interpretive center in its master plan.
"You got $3 million without talking to anybody,'' he said.
Another former top-ranking Swiftmud official, Kevin Love, also voiced concern about the "very little information given to your stakeholders when you're going for big bucks.''
Love added that elements of the county's proposal are "contrary and incompatible with the land management plan,'' which Love had helped to write. He acknowledged that the area does need more swimming but that accessing the lakes off Osowaw Boulevard created too much impact on the preserve.
Longtime Hernando Beach resident Fran Baird said she understood there were a lot of pros and cons but she didn't want to see the funding lost.
"We've got $6 million here and we do need more swimming over here,'' she said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.