There's a lot to like about Hernando County's proposed Nature Coast Experience. Expanding recreation along the deep-water lakes left behind by a mining operation has substantial appeal, particularly on property already under public ownership. And developing a new beach is worthwhile goal in a county that has limited alternatives for public swimming. But the $6 million conceptual plan rolled out earlier this month leaves far too many questions unanswered. The county must not be sloppy and do its due diligence before proceeding.
The county's plan calls for a lakeside beach, cabanas, nature tourism center, sports field and parking lots on up to 50 acres inside the Weekiwachee Preserve. But still lacking: a feasibility study, business plan or acknowledgement of the role Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — with its own planned interpretive nature center — would play as either a potential partner or competitor.
The county recently settled on the state-owned preserve as the potential location of its tourism/recreation project after Hernando Beach residents objected to attaching it to the proposed rezoning and expansion of privately owned Blue Pelican Marina. But there are many questions the county still must prepare to answer, not the least of which is how to deal with traffic:
•The county wants park-goers to enter and exit from Osowaw Boulevard. But using Osowaw will require vehicles to bisect a wildlife corridor used by black bears and conflicts with the preserve's 1997 land management plan by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. That plans calls for a public beach and picnic area on the western edge of the property with access from the two-lane Shoal Line Road across the street from the Hernando Beach South neighborhood.
• How will the county absorb ongoing operating and maintenance costs after years of shortchanging its parks and recreation budget?
• How will the county come up with the $3 million match required to draw down the money set aside in the state budget? Proponents of the county's environmental lands program fear that account will be tapped without public input.
• Why would a Nature Coast Experience include a sports field that could require high maintenance grass, sprinklers and fertilizer?
• Will the ongoing development of SunWest, a similar beach park at a nearby site in Pasco, diminish the lure of the Nature Coast Experience and attendance at Hernando's park?
• And, most importantly, can Hernando County develop this project without severely and permanently damaging the environmental attributes that made this property an attractive public acquisition in the first place?
The county is right to try to create a new beach and a museum-like setting to educate the public about Florida's environment. It shouldn't be dismissed out of hand simply because it will bring more people to a preserve. However, the county must provide accurate financial projections and a better accounting of nature in its Nature Coast Experience before trying to proceed.