For a local government that has made job creation and economic development its top priorities, Hernando County has a funny way of following through on its own agenda. Four days ago, over the objections of the county's professional planners, airport manager and business development office, the appointed Planning and Zoning Commission picked faith over finances and said a church can build its sanctuary on industrial zoned land.
The elected County Commission would be wise to reconsider. Preserving land for future industrial development, particularly in the district surrounding the county-owned airport, is imperative in the effort to attract new companies. Allowing that inventory to be whittled away for non-commercial uses is counterproductive to the county's long-term goal of expanding the local economy beyond its historical over-reliance on the residential construction industry.
Nobody disputes the rapidly growing church needs a new home beyond its current meeting place at a middle school, nor does anyone discount the valuable community services offered at Crosspoint Church. But granting the church permission — known as a special exception — to build amid vacant industrial land sets a poor precedent for the county. That is particularly true considering the church's argument that a nearby VFW headquarters means public assembly space already exists within the airport's industrial district. Essentially, by allowing the church to proceed with a 1,600-seat sanctuary and potentially a future day care center and elementary school on the nearly 16 acres, the county will be hard pressed to turn down the next applicant seeking alternative uses for industrial land.
The church said it picked the site, owned by Pinellas-based Lecanto Holding Inc., because 70 percent of its 1,000-member congregation lives within a 2.5-mile radius and because it was unsuccessful in finding a location elsewhere. At one time, the land, located at Anderson Snow Road and Corporate Boulevard and adjacent to Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport, had been owned by the Hernando School District. It sold the property to Lecanto Holding after deciding to build its planned bus garage on California Street with the Nature Coast Technical High School. The land's industrial designation dates to the 1980s and the county established the airport development district in its original comprehensive land use plan in 1990.
If county commissioners don't have the political will to overturn their planning and zoning board, then they should consider the advice offered by the church's attorney, Darryl Johnston. If you don't want places of public assembly moving to industrial land, then rewrite the county code. Churches, VFW posts and other places where people congregate, are allowed, with a special exception, on any land in the county regardless of its zoning.
It is a reasonable suggestion. A county seeking to rebuild its still struggling economy would be smart to protect the space it has available for future industrial development.