West Hernando business leaders decided Thursday to maintain a united front with their east-side counterparts by joining the growing business coalition opposed to changing the county's comprehensive plan. The coalition already is preparing the paperwork to join the county in suing the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) if the state demands too drastic a change to the county's growth plan, according to organizer Joe Mason, president of the Hernando Chamber of Commerce.
The suit will be heard by an administrative hearing officer starting March 5 if the County Commission and DCA Secretary Tom Pelham are unable to reach a compromise on such issues as urban sprawl in the county, commercial development and the level of congestion on the county's major roads.
The West Hernando Chamber of Commerce is the latest group to join the coalition, which includes most of the major business associations in the county. The coalition has hired the Tampa law firm of Taub & Williams to represent it.
Mason said he believes the county and DCA will reach an agreement that would delay the suit. But he said the county _ and the Hernando business community _ need to be ready if last-minute negotiations fail.
"You can't negotiate with a strong position if you're not ready to go to the mat," Mason said in an interview last week.
The County Commission will hold a public hearing on a proposed settlement with DCA at 1:30 p.m. March 1 at the Hernando County Fairgrounds.
In voting to join the coalition, however, the West Hernando board of directors said they did not want any lawsuits filed by the coalition without prior approval by the West Hernando board.
But Mason said the coalition must submit its objections by Wednesday if it is going to join in the administrative fight should the negotiations break down.
He said the coalition has yet to determine what its position will be on the proposed settlement. The proposal would drastically lower the development potential in the central and eastern portions of the county; limit or prohibit commercial development along long stretches of U.S. 19 and State Road 50; and would require a building moratorium if those roads become too overcrowded.
The coalition's official position is to oppose any changes to the current comprehensive plan, Mason said. But he added: "We know there are going to be some changes. There are going to have to be compromises if a settlement is to be reached."
The business coalition needs to ensure that the compromises do not hurt damage the economy too much, he said.
Other coalition supporters, however, seem to be less than supportive of any changes. "We don't like the proposals the state is making at all," said Steve Van Slyke, president of the county Board of Realtors.
Said Reggie Miller, chairman of the Committee of 100: "If you go along with what DCA wants, you're liable not to be able to build a home on your own property."
The "rural" land classification proposed would limit development to one house for every 10 acres. But the proposed settlement would not prohibit any landowner from building at least one home on his property _ no matter what its size _ even if it were reclassified into that category.
Many of the West Hernando Chamber leaders were hesitant to join the coalition in large part because few of them understood what was proposed for the comprehensive plan, how the hearing process worked, and what the coalition's role would be within that process.
"I'm reluctant to sign on to something really not knowing what we're dealing with," said Vice President Wayne Coulter. Some also were concerned that the interests of the west side business community might be different from the rest of the county.
But after more than an hour of discussion, the board voted 12-1 to join the coalition. Real estate agent Pat Fleck was the only dissenter.
"Why can't we be represented as ourselves at this public hearing, rather than have somebody else speak for us?" she asked the board.