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Growth plan already affecting economy

There were more than 125 people in attendance when Hernando County's development director came to discuss the county's landmark comprehensive growth plan with westside business leaders. For 20 minutes, Larry Jennings spoke with bureaucratic clarity on "backlogged facilities," "infrastructure management" and "county collector and arterial roadways." He then asked the membership of the West Hernando Chamber of Commerce for questions.

There were but three.

"You've got to get somebody to help you make road problems more interesting," Paulette Huffstetler of LV Productions teased Jennings as he left the meeting.

But those crowded roads already are of vital interest, according to a growing coalition of Hernando business people. How those roads are handled in the comprehensive plan will have a major impact on the Hernando economy for years to come, coalition members say.

The strict development limits set by the state's 1985 Growth Management Act are only now beginning to be felt, they say, and not just by builders or developers.

Claude Ward is neither. But the owner of Harbour Appliances & TV knows the comprehensive plan willaffect him just the same.

A building moratorium, for example, will mean fewer customers with fewer homes in need of new stoves and washing machines.

"I'm torn down the middle on it," Ward said. "As a businessman, I absolutely hate it. But as a resident, I love it. It's 20 years overdue."

Many business people have seen the plan as something that will affect only land owners and developers, said Len Tria of Raymond James & Associates.

"It is going to have a tremendous effect on everybody and I think that's getting lost somewhere in the discussion," the former county commissioner said.

Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason has been doing his best to rouse the business community from its seeming disinterest. For the past three weeks, he has stumped across the county, aggressively preaching the need for the business community _ from the largest landholder to the smallest retailer _ to keep a united front while a final version of the comprehensive plan is debated.

According to Mason, the president of the Brooksville-based Hernando County Chamber of Commerce,

no segment of the economy will be left untouched if a moratorium on new building is declared.

"There will be a substantial slowdown in the number of nails leaving the hardware store. There will be a substantial slowdown in the number of fast-food hamburgers bought by the carpenter who swings the hammer that pounds those nails," Mason said.

"When (the carpenter) doesn't build the house, he doesn't buy the hamburgers and the shirts and the new car. And it's a never-ending cycle. When the car dealer doesn't sell the new car, that's another hamburger that doesn't get bought," Mason said.

Officials at the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) rejected the county's comprehensive plan last year because they said it would promote urban sprawl and string commercial development along mile after mile of county highways.

County and state officials have been negotiating a compromise since then, one that would limit residential development on tens of thousands of acres east of U.S. 41.

In addition, the proposed changes would eliminate commercial development along U.S. 19 north of State Road 50 and along much of SR 50. But most ominous of all, business people say, the changes would trigger building moratoriums along overcrowded roads if 10 percent more vehicles are added to the roads before they are widened.

That proposal could severely damage the home-building industry in Spring Hill because such a moratorium would affect the residential areas that feed onto those roads, some say.

In the past two weeks, Mason has convinced several county business groups to back his plan to hire a lawyer to ensure that the county's economic interests are adequately protected during the preparation of the compromise plan.

"Until the people are directly affected, they have this low level of enthusiasm," Tria said. "And after they find out they've just been prohibited from doing something, they get all bent out of shape. We're trying to avoid that."

The Hernando County Commission will have a public hearing on the proposed changes to the comprehensive plan at 1:30 p.m. March 1 at the McKethan Auditorium at the county fairgrounds.

If the county and DCA are unable to reach an agreement, an administrative hearing is scheduled to start the following Monday.

Nobody knows what the final plan will look like, nor how it will ultimately affect the county's growth and economy. And even that uncertainty is having an effect on business decisions.

Ward, of Harbour Appliance, was preparing to build a new distribution center. But now he is waiting to see what the new comprehensive plan will look like.

"That will determine where, how much and when," Ward said, "when a year ago, it was clear."