Against the background chatter of a need for immediacy in rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure as part of a national economic stimulus sits a local project intended to do likewise. Except expediting the $9-million dredging of the Hernando Beach Channel has never been a priority.
Last week Hernando County commissioners agreed to hire outside legal counsel to try to resolve a permitting dispute by the end of March. The sense of urgency is welcome after years of delays, missed deadlines and broken promises.
Whether retaining Tallahassee attorney Richard Brightman proves fruitful for Hernando remains to be seen, but at least there is familiarity with the intricacies of state bureaucracy. The county tapped the same firm that helped craft the language of the narrowly focused 2005 legislation that set aside $2.5-million from the Department of Transportation for the project, bringing the overall state contribution to $6-million, or two-thirds of the expected price tag. Four years later, we're still waiting for the economic benefits from that planned state investment.
A deeper, wider, and safer channel at Hernando Beach would benefit recreational boaters, certainly. But the impetus here is to assist people like the boating school owner who must keep a 34-foot craft in Pinellas County because it can't navigate the channel at low tide. Or the commercial fishermen who troll the waters off the Hernando coast accounting for a quarter of the shrimp sold in bait shops around Florida but whose productivity is hampered by boats damaged by the channel's rocky path. Or the marina owner unable to rent slips to larger boats that instead sail to other locales to spend their money on fuel and marine supplies.
There is grumbling in some quarters that the dredge is ill-timed in light of a constrained county budget that should be focusing on broader needs. The thinking is understandable, but fails to recognize the dredge is not aimed at exclusively recreational boaters, nor is it a cleaning of residential canals. If it were, a more appropriate payment option would be a special taxing district of the coastal community.
Likewise, the economic benefit will be tangible, but not overwhelming. Pasco County officials acknowledge their dredging of the Hudson Beach channel has not brought an expected commercial redevelopment, in part because the channel remains shallow in three places.
For Hernando to proceed, the long-delayed project must overcome the self-interests trying to guide where the dredge spoils are delivered. Commissioners shouldn't be bullied by the Manuel family, whose property on Eagles Nest Drive had been targeted as the exclusive location to dump 50,000 cubic yards of soil. The fill would have made the land easier to develop, but federal regulators are now requiring a flood study before that plan proceeds. The permit application also faces an administrative hearing later this month because of environmental objections from neighbors.
Facing what it believed to be insurmountable difficulties in obtaining permits, the county began investigating putting the spoils on its former wastewater treatment plan on Shoal Line Boulevard. Brightman's job is to evaluate both sites, determine which land is more likely to gain state approval and assist the county in navigating the permitting bureaucracy.
The hiring, however, includes one other troubling task. Brightman will attempt to mitigate potential claims from the Manuels if their Eagle Nest Drive property is passed over.
It is imperative to expedite the dredging to meet a June 2010 completion date to guarantee the state dollars. The public has been fed enough empty promises. It shouldn't be asked to swallow a willingness to negotiate with a private landowner offering what could be determined to be an inferior site, no matter how well-connected the owner.