HERNANDO BEACH — For 24 years, Tommy Evans has been pulling crabs from the waters off Hernando Beach. On a good day, he'll snag enough to fill seven or eight baskets.
Evans keeps his boat on his residential property on Bimini Drive and accesses the Gulf using the Tarpon Canal. He cooks his catch on a property he owns under the name Fisherman's Landing at Calienta Street and Gulf Coast Drive. He packages and ships his product out when he has a few hundred pounds to make it worth his while.
But in recent years, he has been working on a site that doesn’t allow this work. Last year, county code enforcement officers cited him for it.
Now Evans is asking for a county zoning change so he can launch his boat off Gulf Coast Drive, travel the Cheeks Creek Canal to pick up crabs, then return to process and pack them. The rezoning would limit Evans' fishing activities, but would formalize permission for the work on his site.
Traditionally, all commercial fishing in Hernando Beach has been off the Tarpon Canal to the north, the widest canal with the most direct connection to the Hernando Beach boating channel.
Last week, several dozen of Evans' residential neighbors came out to hear him speak about his proposed rezoning in a public information workshop at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary building. They also heard from Don Lacey, the Coastal Engineering representative handling his case before county officials, and Evans' attorney, Jacob Cremer of Tampa.
Community concerns about expanded commercial fishing on the residential canals are nothing new.
A few months ago, the community joined the Hernando County Port Authority in opposing the Birrens family, who wanted to expand their Hernando Beach Seafood fish processing down to the Marlin Canal. The Hernando County Commission denied the application.
A couple years ago, another property owner was denied when he tried to expand commercial fishing at the Gulf Coast property site. Several other rezoning requests were denied to prevent commercial fishing activities south of the Tarpon Canal.
There is a new wrinkle in this latest case.
Evans has argued that under Florida law, crabbing is a historical use on the property and should be allowed.
If the County Commission denies the re-zoning, Evan’s attorney said they may pitch it to a hearing officer for further review. Ultimately a judge may decide.
Residents questioned the business’ affect on their property values and asked why Evans has been allowed to do illegal activities.
"In some circumstances, you can use a property in a certain way, regardless of what the zoning and what the comprehensive plan says,'' Cremer said. He believes the county improperly stripped commercial uses from Evans' property years ago when his property was divided.
Lacey explained that with his current zoning, Evans could put many more boats on the site and in adjoining slips. By agreeing to a planned development project, Evans would be limited to two boats more than 26 feet long. His current boats are 40 feet and 37 feet long.
But residents were skeptical.
"What guarantee do we have that you won't violate those as you have in the past?'' asked Judy Zellmer.
Lacey encouraged residents to put their concerns in writing so they can be added to the application as it goes before the county Planning and Zoning Commission — as early as April — and later, the County Commission.
Hernando Beach residents are circulating a petition through Change.org that opposes the rezoning. It had more than 100 signatures in the first 12 hours. Having larger-than--allowed commercial fishing boats on Evans' property would prevent recreational boats from maneuvering into nearby vessel fueling stations, the petition says.
"Hernando Beach is a tranquil and unique residential community where 95 percent of the taxable value is in residential lots and homes,'' according to the petition. "This rezoning will forever damage the full potential of Hernando Beach as the residential community it was designed to be."
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.