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  1. Hernando

Great Spirit Farm granted permit for spiritual retreat in Hernando County

Hernando County Government Center
Hernando County Government Center
Published Aug. 13, 2019

BROOKSVILLE — Travis Morehead and Shannon Hernandez first sought permission for a religious retreat two years ago on their 20-acre property on Walking Horse Trail. They walked away with a sound rejection from the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission and much concern from their surrounding neighbors.

The couple was back before the planning commission on Monday and this time got the nod of approval for their special exception use permit, but still faced the same neighborhood opposition. Even a couple of the planning commission members shared some of the neighbors' concerns.

The Great Spirit Farm proposal was scaled back from the 2017 version, which was enough to sell three of the five planning commission members on the idea.

Gone were plans for small cabins, recreational vehicles, weddings, short-term vacation rentals, horseback riding, massage therapy and frequent large events at the site. The couple also scaled back on the area they want to use, targeting just 10 of their 20 acres for the small-group spiritual gatherings for private members of their congregation.

Hernandez was clear in her detailed presentation of their plan that they did not want to negatively impact their rural community. And she said that she and her husband were within their rights to worship in their chosen way without undue restrictions by county planners.

"Our assertion is that we are in the best possible location'' for the retreat they envisioned, Hernandez said.

Neighbors still had the same concerns as before.

They worried about more traffic on their private roads, which they have to maintain themselves. They didn't want noise or strangers impacting their rural, equestrian area adjacent to the Withlacoochee State Forest. And they believed that restrictive covenants on their properties prevented anyone from running a business from their land.

Neighbor Larry Cooper said that the basics of the proposal still were not acceptable.

"The incompatibility of the surrounding area is still the same,'' he said. He said he thought that the couple would "do what they originally planned,'' no matter what they said in the current application.

That theme was repeated by several other residents who said they didn't trust the promises.

"Can we believe them?" asked Annette Tolbert. "I don't believe them ... if you give them an inch, they're going to take 100 miles.''

Planners restricted gatherings on the site to just five individuals, even though Hernandez asked for that to be expanded to 10. They also wrote into the conditions that no permanent structures for lodging could be built and that recreational vehicles would not be allowed.

Planning commission members Lynn Gruber-White and John Scharch also were worried about the inaccessibility of the site to emergency vehicles. The couple has a right to worship the way they chose, Gruber-White said, but someone invited onto the property also has a reasonable expectation of being safe there.

Hernandez said that their land was agricultural and that any sales of plants or products made there was permissible. She said she and her husband would help maintain the road, but that their funds were tied up in the legal issues related to the permit they were seeking. She also said there was no proof of loud voices and music coming from their property or of other neighbor complaints of incidents between church members and horseback riders in the neighborhood.

Planning commissioners Alia Qureshi, Denis Riley and Ronald Cohen voted in favor of the permit with the limiting conditions. Neighbors can always call on the county if they find the rules are being broken.

The planning commission approval stands unless the application is taken up by the County Commission at a future meeting.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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