Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Hernando Beach challenge: Lure visitors, protect locals

The sunset-colored sign beckons drivers from U.S. 19 and Spring Hill Drive to Hernando Beach and its promise of water-front living, fresh seafood and thousands of acres of unspoiled Florida. To get there, you just need to navigate the traffic leaving Walmart, ignore the aroma of a dying sewage treatment plant, and turn left at the entrance to the county-owned trash transfer station.

The view gets better. Honest.

Nearby await canals, wetlands, wildlife, sail boats and sunsets. Still, this largely residential community and its commercial district sandwiched between the coast and 6,000 acres of the Weeki Wachee preserve is dotted by ugliness. Empty buildings, foreclosed homes, lots of clutter from dry-docked boats and the accoutrements of the commercial fishing industry compete for attention just outside a water-front development filled with high-end houses that are unprotected by neighborhood deed restrictions. Try selling a half-million-dollar home when the lot next door looks like it's owned by Sanford & Son.

Dealing with the internal blight, though, is now a secondary consideration for some of the residents. The owners of the Blue Pelican Marina (one of four marinas at Hernando Beach) are seeking to rezone 31 acres of land at the community's northern gateway to expand their boat storage capabilities and to add 42 hotel-room-sized cottages, a restaurant/lodge, and potentially a cultural center with an amphitheater and museum. The idea is to turn Hernando Beach from simply a place to live and boat to a place where people will stay and vacation by adding a tourist destination spot.

This really shouldn't be a total surprise. Just two years ago, Hernando County completed its $15 million dredge of the Hernando Beach channel providing safer access to the Gulf of Mexico. Commercial and residential development is a natural successor to that county and state investment.

Some of the locals aren't too keen on adding such commerce adjacent to a residential neighborhood. They have legitimate worries about: Noise and light pollution from the amphitheater; a shoulderless two-lane road serving as the site's only access; boat congestion at the canal and public launches next to the marina; and potential wetlands damage.

Any arguments about diminished aesthetics, however, are undermined by just looking around at the other commercial sites on Shoal Line Boulevard. And concerns about the potential financial damage to the area's small family-owned motel and the other marinas are misplaced. It's not up to Hernando County to block a business expansion so competitors can benefit.

The leading objector is Forrest Bennett, 56, a retired magazine executive, who isn't short of hyperbole or energy. He referenced the fight over the rezoning application as "Pearl Harbor'' and he pulled an all-nighter last week to get ready for the Hernando Planning and Zoning Board meeting Monday.

Bennett questioned the need for an amphitheater considering the nearby county-owned Linda Pedersen Park as been the site of daylong musical festivals. The proposed cultural center is misplaced, he said, and he has already identified a more suitable location – the smelly sewage treatment plant just outside the neighborhood. The county has said it plans to decommission the Osowaw Boulevard plant and knock it down, leaving 16 acres of publicly owned land nearly directly across the street from the main entrance to the Weeki Wachee Preserve.

It's an idea worth pursuing, considering the cultural center is expected to be publicly financed. The county is seeking a multimillion-dollar state allocation for it in addition to potentially using a still-unrealized payout from the BP oil spill settlement.

"The environmental and tourist center would be a great activity for economic development and a great activity for tourism, but why would you put it out here?'' Bennett asked as he looked over the marina property.

Good question and the answer is part of the challenge facing Hernando County. It wants to promote the Nature Coast to draw visitors and expand the economy. But, it must do so without polluting the Nature Coast and driving away the residents who already have invested in the area as the place they want to live.

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