BROOKSVILLE — The age-old conflicts typical in a developing community are coming to a head again as Hernando County officials consider the first major rewrite in 27 years of their official blueprint for development.
For more than a year, county planning staffers have been working on a new comprehensive plan, which will be in force until 2040. Their work has been shaped by their planning expertise, intermixed with suggestions by members of the public from both ends of the political spectrum. The County Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission each held public workshops on the proposed changes in the plan earlier this month.
During the County Commission hearing, Brooksville resident Shirley Miketinac summed up the debate, saying that, to her, the draft now before the county "is a decent compromise between the liberal, progressive, environmental philosophy and the conservative, property rights, constitutional philosophy.''
Those on the opposite side of the issue see the latest version as an undermining of rules needed to protect the qualities that make Hernando County attractive and sustainable into the future.
Planner Pat McNeese, who has been responsible for much of the rewrite, said that after the original draft came out last year and public and official input was gathered, she worked on a rewrite that incorporated issues that arose.
Among her changes: reduced the size of the document, reduced the number of mandatory requirements beyond what the state requires, beefed up the section on property rights, took a hard look at the issue of wildlife corridors, clarified environmentally sensitive lands strategies since the commission changed its policy on that issue and expanded the economic development element.
One major change in the draft plan over the existing plan is an increase in residential density from 16 units per acre to 22 units per acre. McNeese pointed out that the number of county residents is projected to increase from 181,878 — the population in April — to 236,200 by 2040.
Ten residents and others with ties to the community have criticized the latest draft of the growth plan, preferring the original rewrite that was done by the county's planners. They do not see the document as a compromise and have complained that their input was not considered in the rewrite.
They have argued that the latest version would gut important safeguards for the environment, doesn't go far enough to protect residents living close to mining areas, doesn't do enough to protect drinking water and fails to promote sustainable energy and green-building requirements.
They also have urged that no new mining areas should be approved and that the county should support a state ban on fracking.
The changes in the new draft "have substantially weakened and undermined the goals for protecting our environment, creating healthy communities and promoting smart planning,'' said Gordon Carroll, treasurer of Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee.
Carroll was critical of the county's decision to remove the map showing wildlife corridors and said that changes in the environmentally sensitive lands program have reduced it to being ineffective.
Resident Gary Sawyer voiced concern that commissioners might have the wrong motivation for approving a watered-down comprehensive plan.
"We are here because we care about the future of Hernando County, unlike the business interests that may even be contributing to your election campaigns because there is money to be made if certain decisions are made by you,'' Sawyer said.
Said resident Rosemarie Grubba: "We need to be forward thinking and provide a thoughtful growth plan to promote, protect and keep the natural beauty that draws out tourism here. That is our main economic driver.''
DeeVon Quirolo, who is active with local environmental and anti-mining groups, expressed disappointment that the revisions in the document didn't reflect the comments from many residents who supported a stronger document.
"Smart planning is essential to create a healthy, sustainable future for Hernando County, and this plan won't do that,'' Quirolo said.
Miketinac said she supported the rewrite because it took out the "shalls, wills and musts,'' allowing for more flexibility.
"It's a better plan because it strengthens personal property rights,'' she said.
Anthony Palmieri, a former member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, said he thought the new draft was better than the existing plan and acknowledged the difficulty in drawing up a document.
"How do you achieve perfection when you have so many things to balance out?'' he asked. "You can never please everybody."
The changes did seem to please commissioners.
"Sounds like we're moving in the correct direction,'' said commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.
"This is a balancing act,'' said Commissioner Jeff Holcomb. "The county has to grow. ... We have to find the right places to grow and the right places to conserve.''
Commissioner Steve Champion said he was pleased to see fewer government mandates and more attention to property rights. He also voiced his concern for the mining industry, saying that his family worked for the mines and "taking lime rock out of the ground isn't the worst thing in the world.''
The county's business community — including the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, builders, Realtors, mining interests and Hernando Progress — has hired Coastal Engineering Associates of Brooksville to analyze the draft comprehensive plan to have input, Don Lacey of Coastal told the planning commission.
The County Commission is expected to consider approval to transmit the new plan to the state in December. After a state review, final approval could come in March.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.