Next week, Hernando County Commissioners likely will vote to buy land to expand parking for the Hernando Beach boat ramp — less than a month after the board first discussed the topic. That Dec. 18 discussion drew blindsided residents, the return of a political power player and hints of potential conflicts of interest.
Commissioners talked about buying land next to the Calienta Street parking lots where boaters park their trailers. They agreed unanimously, with little conversation, that a 4.5 percent increase in county boat registrations between 2008 and 2017 demanded they double the size of the parking lot. The proposed price for the land is $475,000.
By agreeing that growth drives the need for more parking, commissioners can use money from impact fees — paid to the county by land developers — to buy and develop the land. The subject already has raised the hackles of Hernando Beach residents, who are skeptical of development after years of controversial commercial development attempts.
"Transparency and accountability: That was the big theme in the campaign," said resident Charles Greenwell, who ran unsuccessfully for the county commission last year. "Now that the election is over, here we are again: Surprise, ambush and attack.”
The deal on the table
The Dec. 18 discussion focused on two parcels, totaling about four acres, south of the current parking lot. They already were offered to the county for sale. Assessed earlier last year at about $152,000 by the county property appraiser, an October private appraisal commissioned by the county put their market value at nearly triple that, $440,000.
Kevin Johnston, the county's chief deputy of valuation and tax roll, said the gap between appraisals was notable, but that variables in the assessment process sometimes lead to big differences. The public appraisal is based on a broad comparison to other sales, for example, but a private appraisal may account for only a handful of more recent sales.
"It does seem quite a spread," Johnston told the Tampa Bay Times. "Is that normal? It's not abnormal."
But price wasn't the sticking point last month. Instead, commissioners worried that the offer's 60-day "feasibility period" — during which the county can renege on the sale — wasn't long enough to determine whether it could build a parking lot on the property or whether other agencies would approve the plan. Among them is the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"In going from this point to actual reality, we’re going to have to deal with those agencies," Commissioner John Allocco said. "So we could go through all this, and they could say, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ and we’re stuck having the land.”
Commissioners ordered staff to negotiate with the sellers for a 180-day feasibility period.
Two other parcels, each owned by different parties, also came up. Each borders the current parking lot, but neither had an appraisal or offer on the table.
Commissioners agreed that parking expansion is needed. However, Commissioner John Mitten questioned whether traffic congestion there is more due to poor entry and exit options.
The county has been planning to update four of its boat ramp areas, including the Hernando Beach one.
Several months ago, it enlisted engineering firm Cardno to explore changes. A survey showed that some boaters wanted more parking, while others used the Hernando Beach ramp because parking was easier than at other ramps.
Cardno presented a handful of designs at a Dec. 5 public workshop, but none included more parking at the Hernando Beach ramp. Some residents said they felt blindsided when the issue showed up on the Dec. 18 agenda.
Keith Kolasa, the county's aquatic services manager, said the county's boat ramp plan didn't call for such an expansion. He told the Times this week that he needed more research to know if the two parcels for sale would make for good parking. Flooding could be an problem, he said.
The county needs more boat ramp parking, he said, and there's room to expand in Hernando Beach, as opposed to Rogers Park and Jenkins Creek, "which are pretty maxed out."
The board also will vote next week on allowing Cardno, for an extra $12,000, to evaluate all four parcels around the parking lots, Kolasa said. Buying more land could remedy the awkward turns from Shoal Line Boulevard onto Petit Lane and Calienta Street, he said, and for traffic congestion on Calienta during peak boating season.
"This isn't just about adding parking," he said. "We're also trying to make the flow of traffic better for residents."
The land purchase discussion occasioned the return of a Hernando County political fixture: Gary Schraut. The longtime Republican activist was chairman of the now-defunct Hernando County Aviation Authority.
Schraut, a realtor, represents owners of the two parcels offered for sale and stands to make a commission on the deal.
Both residents and commissioners wondered if the Schraut-represented land would flood, rendering it useless for parking. Schraut argued that flooding would be as much a risk anywhere else in Hernando Beach. He also suggested that raising the elevation would mitigate some issues.
Schraut said he wasn't authorized that day to offer a feasibility period of 180 days, but said that length of time sounded reasonable.
Board chairman Steve Champion said the owners had approached him about selling the property. Schraut said he approached the county about selling it the property several years ago, then again in February or March of last year. County administrator Len Sossamon said Champion had been asking staff to look into the property for about six months.
There's a more explicit connection between Schraut and board member Jeff Holcomb.
On Sept. 14, Holcomb became a licensed real estate broker. Less than a week later, according to public records, he started working for Alliance Enterprises of the Nature Coast. Schraut is the qualifying broker at that office.
But Holcomb said he doesn't believe the connection constitutes a conflict of interest.
"It doesn't affect me, the fact that (Schraut is) representing it in any way," he said. "I don't get any benefit from it."
Schraut said he hasn't worked out of the office where Holcomb works in several years, and said their paths haven't crossed in Holcomb's time as an agent. Schraut didn't know Holcomb was hired to the job, he said, until he saw it on Facebook.
Holcomb plans to participate in any vote about purchasing the property. He said the two parcels up for sale seem like the best option for expanding parking at the boat ramp.
County Attorney Garth Coller said he had no knowledge of the Holcomb-Schraut connection and would not comment on the record.
Another parcel, another possible conflict
Of the other two vacant parcels discussed at the Dec. 18 meeting, the northernmost curls around the north and east sides of the parking lot. It also is associated with a familiar name; it's owned by Gordon Wolf's 5000 Calienta Street company.
Wolf, who formerly owned the nearby Blue Pelican Marina, clashed with Hernando Beach residents in 2014 over his role in the county's aborted effort to build a state-funded education center on his land.
Buying the Wolf parcel was suggested several times in the Dec. 18 meeting by commissioner Wayne Dukes. Dukes argued that its location could offer more suitable access onto Shoal Line Boulevard and would avoid Calienta Street.
Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach, told the Times he was skeptical of how the southern parcels would serve the boat ramps. Even if the county builds up the lot enough to avoid flooding, he worries about the distance between the lot and the ramp.
"I can't imagine people walking that far back and forth," he said.
The county plans to get an appraisal on the Wolf property, Dukes said, and Wolf has told Dukes he's interested in selling for the right price.
Dukes came under fire during the education center controversy, after he admitted that he'd worked with Wolf on development ideas for months before the board considered a proposal to rezone Wolf's land.
Dukes said he doesn't believe there's any conflict of interest for him in taking a vote on the land.
"I know there's not, because if there was, I would back out," he said.
Coller also would not comment on Dukes' connection with Wolf.
Residents remain skeptical
Hernando Beach residents at the meeting took aim at the proposed land purchase.
Jodie Pillarella said she didn't believe parking expansion was necessary. She worried that commissioners had ulterior motives.
"My concern is that once it’s purchased at this inflated rate, (the county will have) carte blanche, and we won’t know what’s done," she said. "Maybe there’s another good use for this land if it’s something we really need, but boat parking is not it."
Diane Greenwell said most of her neighbors hadn't heard about the possible land sale. She argued that the county needs to hold a public information workshop about a purchase. The county attorney said a workshop isn't required.
Dukes told the Times that Hernando Beach residents need to put aside their fears about development for the good of the entire county.
"It's called progress," he said. "It's not safe the way it is, and we're never going to shut everything down so no one can come out here except the residents."
The county likely won't have a clear answer on the Schraut properties — including the potential for flooding — until it does a feasibility study. But Deputy County Administrator Jeff Rogers told the Times earlier in December that the site would make more sense as a drainage retention area.
When it rained heavily a few days after the meeting, residents took note on the Nextdoor social media site and posted a picture of flooding on the lot for sale. The storm had cleared and sun shone, but water still stood, submerging a large swath of the land.
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans. Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.