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Anchored by shallow roots // Environmentalists get help from law

Both sides describe themselves as the underdog in Hernando County'sbattle between environmentalists and developers.

"The developers have the upper hand," said archaeologist and

environmentalist Robert Marsh. "Money talks."

Developer Derrill McAteer has a different view: "Right now you've got a weakened development industry statewide.

The environmentalists have taken advantage of that and are in control."

In reality, the battle is probably closer to a draw than it ever has been. Local environmental groups had some effect on the county's comprehensive land-use map and have been aided by recent state regulations that slow development.

But there is no grass-roots movement to slow or stop development in Hernando County. Certainly nothing like the broad-based environmental activism in Citrus and Alachua counties.

Biologist Steve Fickett has been active in environmental issues in Hernando since the early 1970s. He has seen some environmental concern but he has not seen that translate into any meaningful victories for people concerned about the air, water and land.

"I think actually that there is more environmental awareness in the county than ever before," Fickett said recently. "But there's a question in my mind about how much progress we're making."

Fickett sat on the environmental and coastal protection task force that helped develop a broad outline for the state-mandated comprehensive plan, which is a blueprint for the county's future growth. He now says that the group's work was largely a failure, as the plan eventually was amended to put words like "should" and "may" where the environmentalists originally had written "must" and "will."

Fickett and others who were involved in the county's land-use planning say that the ultimate winner between developers and environmentalists will emerge from the battle over building restrictions in Spring Lake.

Developers would like to be able to build one home per acre in the east Hernando hamlet, while environmentalists would like to restrict the development to a maximum of one home per five acres, thereby retaining the area's agricultural character.

"We'll see what happens with our comprehensive plan and particularly Spring Lake," said Spring Hill homebuilder Hal Rober, who also sits on the county's Planning and Zoning Commission. "That will give us the indication of which way the county's heading."

The County Commission originally approved a comprehensive plan that allowed one home per acre on about 25,000 acres of land around Spring Lake. That plan was rejected by the state Department of Community Affairs.

In late December, county planning officials made the first move toward restricting development in the Spring Lake area to one home per five acres - effectively closing southeast Hernando County to the kind of subdivisions that routinely are approved for Spring Hill.

The revised plan has not yet been approved by the County Commission, but if it is and is later accepted by the state, it would represent the first tangible victory by environmental interests over developers in years.

But while the competing interests are now focusing on Spring Lake, Hernando County environmentalists have made progress in other areas.

Several community groups sprouted after Florida Mining & Materials

announced plans to burn hazardous wastes in the company's cement kilns north of Brooksville.

Ultimately, the state will probably have the final say on whether the company can proceed with its plans. But the activists successfully persuaded county commissioners to hire a Tallahassee law firm to fight Florida Mining's proposal.

State law also has aided the cause of local environmentalists. New

regulations now force developers to pay the state money in exchange for destroying sensitive areas inhabited by protected animals.

As a result, the developers of the Holland Springs subdivision in Spring Hill will pay the state between $150,000 and $800,000 to replace land now inhabited by gopher tortoises. The amount is being negotiated between state officials and the developers.

For every small victory, the environmentalists suffer several setbacks. As development continues along U.S. 19 in Spring Hill and Weeki Wachee, the range of the black bear continues to dwindle.

"The bears are probably doomed in Hernando County no matter what we do," biologist Fickett said. "About the only thing we can do is make it as comfortable for them as possible while they're here."