Last week, Hernando County commissioners said two of their priorities are balancing the budget and boosting employee morale. They've got a funny way of showing it. Tuesday, a commission majority disregarded the professional opinion of their staff members — listening to the employees, after all, was not identified as a prerogative — and charged ahead with a potentially budget-busting amendment to the comprehensive plan.
So much for those short-lived priorities.
On a 3-2 vote, commissioners signaled their intent to allow developers to turn a mostly abandoned mine into a city-sized community of 13,000 people on nearly 4,300 acres touching the Citrus County line. Authorizing the change to the county's land use plan — the state Department of Community Affairs still must agree — means the landowners will be entitled to future zoning changes, despite spin to the contrary that Tuesday's vote was just the start of the process.
By agreeing to change the landscape of the county's northern tier from rural/mining to the Quarry Preserve suburban enclave of houses, business park, golfing resort, town center and other amenities, commissioners positioned the county to absorb costly infrastructure improvements needed to serve the high-density outpost.
County staff, including County Administrator David Hamilton, had warned of the financial consequences of trying to tackle necessary road improvements during a time of shrinking resources. Developing Quarry Preserve is expected to trigger $133 million in needed state highway improvements for which no dollars are earmarked. It could translate into rewriting the county's long-term transportation plan and reallocating money projected to be spent in southern Hernando on County Line Road and State Road 50. In other words, delaying transportation improvements everyone already acknowledges as a need.
The project backers tout Quarry Preserve's ability to pay for itself, but that is a premature boast considering the size of the development's so-called proportionate share of highway construction hasn't been determined. It's also worth noting the backers called for spending their $50 million contribution on widening U.S. 98, providing better access from the project to the northern terminus of the Suncoast Parkway. That strategy raises important questions. Why is the figure identified as $50 million when Planning Director Ron Pianta said Quarry Preserve previously talked of a $60 million contribution? And, why is the link to a parkway heading south imperative for a community that is marketing itself as so sustainable, people will be able to live, work and play all within Quarry Preserve?
In the end, only Commissioners David Russell and Rose Rocco, both of whom face re-election this year, voted against the idea of dropping a new city into the middle of nowhere. Commissioner Jeff Stabins, to his credit, attempted to extract concessions from the development team to curb transportation and school concerns and to allow the nearby county cannery to operate in perpetuity. But, he acquiesced with no promised adjustments and eventually made the motion to approve the amended land use plan.
He shouldn't give up on the negotiations. After this misguided vote to bring suburban sprawl to northern Hernando, Stabins and other commissioners will be tasked during further reviews with ensuring the expensive infrastructure bill is footed exclusively by Quarry Preserve and not pushed onto a public already burdened with dwindling government services.