BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners voted Tuesday to spend $13,665 for a feasibility study on four properties it is considering along Calienta Street for expanded parking near the Hernando Beach boat ramp.
They already have spent $94,675 to study boat ramp upgrades countywide.
Tuesday's vote was not the expected one. At their last meeting, commissioners instructed staff to prepare a purchase contract — with a 180-day feasibility clause — on two of the parcels. They are represented by local realtor Gary Schraut, a powerful player in local politics.
Discussion on the broader feasibility study got a moment of discussion Tuesday and then was done. All five commissioners voted to approve it.
But that was not the end of it.
Schraut was looming in the back of the room. He came to the microphone, sparking a lively — and at times uncomfortable — discussion of the controversial project.
The parcels that Schraut represents, which comprise a triangle of property north of the Coast Guard Auxiliary building and Petit Lane, were submitted as a contract for sale to the county in April, he said.
That was counter to resident concerns expressed last month that Schraut's properties, owned by Gulf Marine Investment Corp., were offered at the last minute.
Expanded parking on that site in Hernando Beach was not among the proposed boat ramp improvements presented to the public at a workshop in early December. Residents said they were blindsided by the proposed purchase.
Residents also were concerned about possible conflicts of interest. Commission chairman Jeff Holcomb is a real estate agent who works for Schraut's firm. And Commissioner Wayne Dukes had worked on earlier proposals with Gordon Wolf, who owns another of the four parcels.
Schraut cautioned commissioners Tuesday against spending money on a feasibility study without having a property under a contract.
Commissioner Steve Champion, who last month backed the contract with Schraut's sellers, criticized the county staff for taking "way too long'' to get it to the board. Commissioner John Mitten agreed, and asked why the Schraut properties were not included in the broader boat ramp plan.
Paul Molle, the county's real property supervisor, said he was one of the reasons for the delay. The Schraut offer came unsolicited at a time when the county had no money to spare, he said. And he knew that the $475,000 asking price was well above the county property appraiser's market value estimate of $152,000.
"It didn't pass the smell test,'' Molle said.
He said he also found out that Schraut had contacted the private appraiser studying the property. At that point, he said, "I kind of lost confidence in the appraisal.''
The privateappraiser said the Schraut parcels were worth $440,000.
Commissioner John Allocco said he didn't like that the county was willing to pay more than the appraised value.
"My client is the taxpayers,'' he said.
Deputy county administrator Jeff Rogers blamed a likely miscommunication for the Public Works Department not considering the Schraut land earlier.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.