BROOKSVILLE — A proposal to expand commercial fish processing into the center of Hernando Beach was unanimously denied Tuesday by the Hernando County Commission.
The proposal by Hernando Beach Seafood, which operates commercial fish and stone crab processing on Calienta Street near the main Tarpon Canal, would have moved its stone crab operation to a site on Shoal Line Boulevard where the company's crab boats moor just off the Marlin Canal.
The company needed the new processing site to reduce crowding at the Calienta location, where shrimp and crab boats cross each other when stone crabs are in season, according to spokesman Allen Sherrod.
Hernando Beach residents vehemently opposed the expansion. More than 150 pages of comments against the plan were included in the commissioners' agenda packet. The county's Port Authority, Planning and Zoning Commission and professional planning staff all recommended denial of the request.
Planners concluded that Hernando Beach Seafood's proposal was inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan for growth and that it did not fit the community's development pattern.
Tuesday's public hearing brought numerous opponents into the commission chambers, but Commission Chairman Steve Champion suggested that their concerns were known. He asked, instead, to hear from the couple of people who raised their hands that they were in favor of the rezoning.
Sherrod, who threatened in writing that a commission denial would prompt a lawsuit, was so abrasive at previous meetings that he was chided to stay on point and not talk down to county officials.
During Tuesday's discussion, Sherrod argued that community and county opposition were based on fiction. The commercial uses his company proposed already were happening on the site and on other nearby properties, he said. He also said that allowing commercial vehicles on Shoal Line Boulevard would create less traffic than using the same property for recreational boaters.
If the commission denied his company's expansion, Hernando Beach Seafood would have to expand its operation on Calienta Street, he said, causing even more congestion there.
The fight "is propaganda by people who want to paint an ecological disaster out of nothing," Sherrod said, arguing that the business has "a legal right to the zoning.''
Co-owner of the business, Kathryn Birren, also spoke in favor of rezoning. Her voice cracking with emotion, she asked that commissioners, during the holiday season, trust the good intentions of her family business.
"Please do not give in to the fear,'' she said. "We are a hard-working fishing family.''
Deputy county attorney Jon Jouben told commissioners that, under zoning rules, the applicant must prove that its request meets the county's comprehensive plan. In this case, he said, the county's own planners concluded that it did not.
For weeks, public discussion of the proposal has spilled into informal and formal community meetings, correspondence with the county and social media debate. Residents aired concerns about falling property values, blight, water pollution and crime. Hundreds signed petitions opposing the application.
Hernando Beach resident Margo McConnell assembled a presentation showing that commercial fishing intentionally was segregated close to the Tarpon Canal. The widest of the community's man-made canals, Tarpon has the most direct route to the Hernando Beach Channel, which leads to fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico.
She listed previous rezoning attempts turned down by the county to keep commercial fish processing in a specific portion of the community.
The Port Authority was concerned that boats moored off the Marlin Canal and using the Calienta Street processing area must navigate a narrow channel that hugs the residential area. About a half dozen commercial boats use that now, but Hernando Beach Seafood refused to limit the number of boats in its rezoning application. That left open the potential for considerably more traffic in the danger zone.
Hernando County needs to embrace increased commercial fishing, because it is "a great economic driver,'' said Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, but adding that "it has to be somewhere else.''
Nowhere else along Hernando County's coast would work, Sherrod said. This rezoning, he said, "was a simple solution.''
Going through the hearing process is part of the "American way,'' said Commissioner John Mitten, and in this case, the overwhelming evidence was for denial.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach, said he could not remember a time when the commission voted against recommendations from both its staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission. He made the motion to deny the company's request.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434. Follow .