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Hernando County rejects housing project

The County Commission, continuing its recent tough stance on development proposals on Wednesday, turned down a plan to build a total of 1,680 houses and hotel rooms on land that includes a spectacular cave.

WCI Communities Inc., one of the state's largest residential developers, had proposed the project as a combination of a resort and subdivision for full-time residents at World Woods Golf Club.

Besides the two acclaimed golf courses already on the property, the project would have included houses, a hotel and possibly a water park, said Jim Stackpoole, a WCI vice president who spoke at the commission's monthly land use meeting.

"So the husband can be out playing golf and the wife and children can be enjoying the theme park," Stackpoole said.

His company was requesting a change in the comprehensive plan to allow full-time residential development on the 1,170 acres owned by World Woods. The golf course has the right to build about 660 resort homes on the property, according to county documents.

Lee Florea, a doctoral candidate in geology at the University of South Florida, did not urge the commissioners to turn down the proposal, but told them about the cave's significance.

Florea said he has explored caves in several countries and about 20 states and has never seen one with such a concentration of geological formations.

"This is unheard of, not just in the state but in the world," he said; about three-quarters of a mile of the underground tunnel has been explored, he added, but the cave is probably considerably longer.

Commissioners said the presence of the cave influenced their decision, but it was not the only factor.

County planners recommended the comprehensive plan amendment because, they said, the area had changed significantly since the early 1990s, when World Woods was initially approved as a resort.

Water and sewer service could easily be provided to the development. It is near other large subdivisions, including Seville and Sugarmill Woods and about a half-mile from the end of the Suncoast Parkway. The stretch of U.S. 98 in front of the property has been widened to four lanes.

Don Lacey of Coastal Engineering Associates Inc., who represented the developer, made the same points in his presentation.

"The nature of this area has evolved into something else," he said.

But Commissioner Jeff Stabins argued that even though the area was becoming more urban, it's not urban now. Seville, which has the approval to build several thousand homes, has constructed only a handful of them. And by allowing the WCI project, Stabins said, the commission would be compounding previous poor decisions to allow development in an area isolated from other urban areas.

"I don't see north (U.S.) 98 as an urban area. I see it as a special area," Stabins said.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson argued that the language in the comprehensive plan change would protect the property. These stipulations called for geologists to study the cave and would have forbidden construction in areas the scientists determined would harm the underground system.

She ultimately voted against the proposal, however, and commission Chairman Robert Schenck was the only commissioner to support it.