HERNANDO BEACH — Take any weekend during scalloping season, on a holiday or in the summer, and traffic along Calienta Street can get chaotic.
Vehicles with trailers back up along the prime entryway into Hernando Beach. Some are forced to navigate the V-shaped intersection at Petit Lane. Parking is often at a premium near the county boat ramps that lead to the Hernando Beach channel.
Months before the adjacent Blue Pelican Marina got embroiled in a rezoning controversy, county officials had been talking with the marina's owner to find a solution to the parking and congestion problems. As the county prepares to move ahead with those plans, the controversy has returned.
Ron Wolf of Blue Pelican told the Tampa Bay Times that the first phase of improvements at the marina will include the county's purchase of property between the county's existing boat trailer parking lots and Shoal Line Boulevard for additional parking. In addition, the county would buy adjacent right of way cutting from Shoal Line — at the intersection with the county's water tower site — across to Calienta Street, allowing for construction of a road with an easier-to-navigate, 90-degree-angle turn into the boat ramps.
Wolf said the marina is justified in expecting a fair market value for the land it will sell to the county because it has already been rezoned for parking, and studies of the location for wetlands and the impact on wildlife will already be done. The county is in the process of getting an appraisal of the property.
But that doesn't sit well with county Commissioner Diane Rowden, who pointed out that the county can rezone its own land and do its own studies. She asked why the commission didn't exclude the nearly 2-acre site when it rezoned the rest of the marina's 31 acres. She said she didn't even realize it was part of the conversation.
"We have to be conservative with the taxpayers' dollars here. We have to do the right thing."
Commissioner Nick Nicholson — who, along with Rowden, opposed the rezoning but lost the vote — said he, too, is not happy with the idea of paying more for the up-zoned property.
"We don't need a commercially zoned piece of property to do that," Nicholson said. "The sooner I can vote against it the better."
"Why would the county wait until after rezoning from agricultural to commercial purposes increased the value perhaps tenfold to purchase land they were interested in acquiring?" asked Hernando Beach resident Forrest Bennett, who organized the opposition to the marina zoning.
"That is suspect and clearly not being fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars," Bennett said. "In my opinion, something is not right here."
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who voted for the rezoning, defended the marina's ability to be properly compensated for selling the land.
"If I own a field and someone wants to buy it and rezone it, well, that's just the American way. … That's capitalism at its best," Dukes said. "I would have liked them to donate this, but life doesn't work that way."