BROOKSVILLE — Public safety concerns over the operation of a forklift on Calienta Street at Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach piqued Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden's interest during a recent contentious rezoning debate.
So, earlier this month, with the consensus of the commission, Rowden asked county staffers to do some research.
The morning after that discussion, Rowden learned just how prickly an issue the forklift was with marina owner Gordon Wolf. Upset that he had not been able to talk about the issue when she raised it, Wolf showed up at her house and confronted her husband, Jay.
Rowden contends that even though the county has an approved sign and crosswalk plan for the area where the marina transports boats between the water and the dry storage building, the forklift is still a hazard on Calienta as it travels backward along the county road near a blind curve.
Rowden said more safety features are needed, and she plans to talk with fellow commissioners about the issue during today's commission meeting. A video shot recently as part of the marina rezoning case shows a forklift backing down Calienta, balancing a pontoon boat. It shows two cars swinging around a blind corner and leaving the roadway to get past the forklift.
Residents say they are concerned that the situation will worsen when the marina expands, which was one aspect of the rezoning that was approved.
The forklift issue is not new. Minutes and staff reports from a 2008 rezoning case, before Wolf owned the marina, cite concerns by the county's public works director and assistant, as well as residents.
"It's about the health, safety and welfare of the people who use that road out there," Rowden said. "It's the county's responsibility. If we know there is a situation out there that can cause harm and something bad happens, then who is liable? At this point, it's the county's responsibility."
In 2011, Wolf signed off on a permit with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to operate the marina, and among the conditions were 10 requirements for road crossings, including lights, a horn for sounding when the forklift is backing up and a spotter when traffic is busy. Neighbors say none of that is in place, and last week the DEP confirmed that a Hernando Beach resident has filed a formal complaint over the missing safety features.
Questions about forklift safety are also at the heart of a negligence lawsuit filed against Wolf last year. In October, a forklift he was operating ran into a worker at the marina boat launch, severing his legs. Wolf told the Times that his forklift is operated safely and that the operators are properly trained and certified.
He also said he doesn't understand why Rowden spoke out in a public meeting, raising safety questions.
The morning after that discussion, Wolf came to the door of the Rowden home and launched into what Jay Rowden termed "a rant" that included an accusation that Diane Rowden was trying to shut down his business and that if she didn't drop the forklift issue, he would go after her and other local businesses for code violations.
After Wolf left, the Rowdens filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office, and officials responded. They then talked to Wolf.
"He said he was upset about the (forklift) issue and he needed to speak to her in person," according to the sheriff's report, "but went on to acknowledge that going to her home was a mistake. He said that he meant no threat to her personally and did express regret for his visit there." Sheriff's officials found no violation of law.
Diane Rowden said she felt threatened by the visit and especially by Wolf's statements to her husband that he had been watching her and making note of where she was going and to whom she was talking.
"In the position I'm in, you have to take this seriously," she said. "I've never had someone come to my property after I've said something or had to make some decision."
Rowden said she was still willing to talk with Wolf about the forklift, as long as he did it through email or an appointment, "and not by showing up on my front porch."