HERNANDO BEACH — Money is short and cuts to county parks have been on the table. So why should the Hernando County Commission spend its countywide recreation fund for parking lots near the Hernando Beach boat ramp, even if more parking spaces are rarely needed?
The community's residents are asking that question as they snap photographs during peak weekend boating times that show empty parking spaces. They also are documenting the condition of properties the county has under contract to purchase for parking lots; the lots were underwater for most of last weekend.
"You were not given correct information about the usage of this parking area most of the year, which is what you used to base your decision on," Jodie Pillarella wrote to Commission Chairman Jeff Holcomb. "You were only given information based on approximately four to five weekends a year ... The lots are never full."
For several weekends since the end of July, Hernando Beach resident Diane Greenwell and others found between 12 and 47 empty spaces on weekend mornings and early afternoons.
"It would be far better to encourage boaters during summer months to rent slips or dry storage at local marinas who would profit and contribute far more to the tax base than the $5 parking fee that is rarely enforced or collected,'' Greenwell wrote to commissioners.
Greenwell and her husband, Charles Greenwell, who ran unsuccessfully for the county commission last year, have argued that the county should not spend its recreational impact fees collected countywide in just one district. County records show that the recreational impact fee fund totals $2.7 million. The money is supposed to be used in the district where it's collected to offset the impacts of growth.
Some commissioners and Hernando Beach residents are okay with the spending because everyone in the county can launch their boats at the Hernando Beach ramp.
"I think it is a good use of those funds," said Gladys Moore, a past president of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, on Next Door Hernando Beach.
County officials determined that the ramp ideally needs 125 parking spaces; the current lots provide just 91.
In January, the County Commission approved a contract with Gulf Marine Investment Corp., represented by politically influential realtor Gary Schraut, to purchase two adjacent parcels of approximately four acres north of Petit Lane and bordered by Calienta Street on the west and Shoal Line Boulevard on the east. The $400,000 contract had a 180-day delay so the county could conduct a feasibility study of that site and two parcels to the north. One is owned by Rickey Cheeks and the other by 5000 Calienta Street, a business owned by Gordon Wolf, former owner of the Blue Pelican Marina.
The study described how the four lots might be developed.
The most extensive project would include buying all four properties for parking, sidewalks and other improvements along Calienta that could resolve traffic and pedestrian problems. The cost of $3.4 million did not including buying the Schraut parcels or the other two properties, which a county-ordered appraisal determined were worth $185,000 together.
Moore, Greenwell and Pillarella agree on one thing, as do others in Hernando Beach. The county needs to fix the congestion and chaos at the boat ramp when cars line up along Calienta Street, snarling traffic for boaters and residents who live north of the boat ramp.
Greenwell suggested the county secure an easement across Wolf's property to connect the boat ramps and existing parking lots to Shoal Line Boulevard. That would alleviate the need for boaters to make the sharp turn at Petit Lane and would not require the county to buy more land.
Commissioner John Allocco, who was one of two votes against exploring the land purchase, wants the county to reconfigure existing parking areas to provide more spaces. He asked earlier this month if that idea was being explored. The county public works director Scott Herring said it was not.
County Administrator Jeff Rogers told commissioners he believed he could pay for a dock master for next year's boating season to direct traffic in the busy area.
Last weekend, social media sites lit up with pictures of flooding on Petit Lane and across the Schraut properties. The waters grew so deep that Petit Lane was closed.
"Prime boat trailer parking there,'' commented Hernando Beach resident Joe Calabro. "You wouldn't even need the boat ramp.''
The feasibility study said those two parcels were "poorly draining with high groundwater conditions.'' Development limitations would be "severe," it said, noting that road access from the parcels to the county's overflow lots would impact established mitigation areas.
The other complication with the property purchases are potential conflicts.
Commissioners voted in late July to pursue purchase of all four sites. The vote was 3-2, with commissioners Holcomb, Steve Champion and Wayne Dukes voting yes and Allocco and John Mitten voting no. But when the contract was approved in January, Holcomb did not vote on the Schraut parcels and signed a formal notice that he had a conflict of interest.
Holcomb is a real estate associate with Century 21 Alliance, the same company in which Schraut is a partner. He said at the meeting that he had no conflict, but recused himself to avoid any questions.
Dukes voiced concern about contracting for the Schraut properties. Schraut worked to keep Dukes from winning reelection last year by funding flyers that played up Dukes' close relationship with former Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department chief David Freda. Freda was charged with theft from the department and the community and made to pay restitution.
Dukes also wanted to consider the property closest to the boat ramp and parking areas, which is owned by Wolf. Dukes was criticized five years ago for working with Wolf to locate a $6 million tourism and education center on that site, paid for by the county and the state. The center was never built.
Pillarella, who is an administrator of the Next Door Hernando Beach social media site, told her neighbors last week that most county residents can't afford boats and would like recreational opportunities near where they live. Those who live in Hernando Beach already have waterfront access and many launch their boats from their homes.
"By voting to buy the proposed land for boat trailer parking, you're literally telling the residents of Hernando County who voted for you that they do not deserve to have any parks and recreation areas near where they live in the county, but must travel the entire length of the county to benefit at all,'' Pillarella wrote. "Common sense needs to prevail. Please reconsider.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.