In January, Hernando County commissioners hired a specialty law firm to shepherd a permit application through state environmental regulations. The goal was to finally begin the long-delayed dredge of the Hernando Beach channel.
Turns out, the county needed hostage negotiators. The ransom is $196,000. That is one of the key caveats to settle an objection from a scorned suitor seeking the spoils produced by the dredge. Today, Hernando commissioners will consider a proposed settlement to eliminate objections to the county's application to dump dredge spoils at its former wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard.
It is an undue financial burden on the public, but one the commission has little choice but to oblige or risk further delays and the potential loss of millions of dollars in state grants for the dredge. That would be an unacceptable alternative even in the face of such a public gouging.
The cash, in two payments, goes to Manuel LLC, one of three objectors to the permit application, but the only one standing to profit. The county also considered property owned by Manuel for the spoils, but faced a different set of environmental concerns from neighbors to Manuel's Eagle Point site.
To get rid of the trumped-up objections from the Manuel family and their friends, the settlement calls for the monetary payout, plus giving Manuel 40,000 cubic yards of fill from the dredged channel, which will enhance the value and development potential of their land.
Monitoring of the nearby Minnow Creek water quality also is part of the proposed settlement, but the objections have never had environmental protection as their top consideration. This is about the private sector holding a highly desirable public project at bay for financial gain.
The current lease agreements between Manuel LLC and Hernando called for the county to provide 32,000 cubic yards of fill as compensation for using the land and to offset the company's costs and loss of potential development revenue. By filing an environmental objection to the wastewater treatment plant site, Manuel LLC gets a significantly better deal. It is now poised to still receive fill dirt, plus nearly $200,000. It's a handsome return for filling out the paperwork for an administrative hearing.
Despite our distaste for this proposed settlement, it is imperative for the $9 million dredging to move forward after years of delays and broken promises. Failing to expedite the actual work threatens a tight timeline that would leave the state funding — nearly two-thirds of the expected cost — in limbo at a time state government is looking for spending cuts.
The deeper, wider and safer Hernando Beach channel will benefit recreational boaters, but more importantly it is intended to boost commercial boating activity that is hampered by the channel's shallow, rocky path. It's just unfortunate the cost of that long-desired public benefit now includes paying off a nuisance suit.