BROOKSVILLE — For almost as long as the 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve has been open to the public, there has been some plan on the table to build a beach there to draw residents and tourists to the site.
One proposal after another has been floated, discussed and discarded over almost 25 years.
The cost, complexity and potential environmental harm, and the steadfast opposition from nearby neighbors and environmental groups has doomed proposal after proposal.
Now the Hernando County Commission has a new plan, one they told County Administrator Jeff Rogers to pursue after another long, emotion-filled public meeting discussing pros and cons last month. This one could hinge on a vote by Hernando residents Tuesday. They are considering a 10-year, half-cent sales tax that could pay for a portion of the recreation plan in the preserve, other recreational expenses and road projects.
The new recreation plan carries an estimated price tag of $7.7 million, a cost commissioners said was likely out of reach without approval of the tax. But they also left the door open to start with the smaller portions of their plan, which includes a new access way, boardwalks, picnic areas, a kayak launch and walking trails, in addition to the beach.
Earlier this year, the county spent $780,000 to buy an old restaurant site on Shoal Line Boulevard adjacent to the preserve. It will provide parking and a new access point into the site.
The four-hour hearing on that purchase included opposition from local high school students and conservation groups concerned about damaging the wildlife corridor and black bear habitat. It also included residents of Hernando Beach, the adjacent waterfront residential community, with some of the priciest homes in the county.
Hundreds of vocal residents there have signed petitions, filled out surveys and packed into the commission chambers over the years with the message that they are glad there is no real beach in Hernando Beach.
But the swimming area proposed for one of the mining pits left on the property has been on the plan since the beginning. In 1995, the Southwest Florida Water Management District used $15.1 million in state preservation money to buy the land from the Oman mining company. The purchase saved the land from development of a 6,000-home community called Oak Sound, which was to have included a 27-hole golf course and a shopping mall.
In 1997, the district opened the Weekiwachee Preserve to the public for passive recreation and established a management plan, which included creating a swimming area in partnership with Hernando County.
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Original plans included a water slide, diving platform, concession stand and a parking lot for 400-500 vehicles. That never materialized. Nor did several other versions of recreational amenities, a tourism center and various beach incarnations staunchly opposed by the community. Recognizing that, the water management district has told the county it wants buy-in from community stakeholders before a recreation plan moves forward.
Commissioners are concerned with what Hernando voters might want, the water management district’s executive director Brian Armstrong said of the controversy over the last plan in 2018. But he said the district represents 16 counties and numerous conservation partners.
“Groups such as the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Native Plant Society and Gulf Coast Conservancy, to name a few, are informed and engaged stakeholders,’’ Armstrong wrote to the county. “The district values being a good neighbor. The district would expect the county to engage with our various stakeholders for input and feedback both at present and in the future, should the proposed project proceed.”
But residents and environmentalists told Hernando commissioners again last month all of the familiar reasons why they thought developing in the preserve was a bad idea.
The preserve boasts 250 species of birds, said Bev Hansen, president of the Hernando County Audubon Society. Keeping the preserve natural and undeveloped is important for that diversity, as well as the corridor it provides other wildlife sandwiched between development to the east of U.S. 19 and to the west in Hernando Beach, she said.
Several recent surveys show residents still oppose development in the preserve, said Hernando Beach resident Lisa Savarese.
“All the residents of Hernando County have told you they do not want this. Your comment cards have told you they do not want this,” she said. “Everybody told you no. Nobody is in favor of this besides the county commissioners.”
Jilian Crowly of the Sierra Club Adventure Coast called the feasibility study for the recreation area, which found no examples of protected species in the area under consideration, “thinly researched.” She also said the proposed recreation area “is deeply unpopular with the people who have taken the time to fill out surveys.”
“We are adamantly opposed” to the project, said Eugene Kelly, an environmental scientist who was representing the Native Plant Society. He said a beach “is not a compatible use of a preserve.”
While the county has argued that a water feature in the preserve would take pressure off the Weeki Wachee River, which shows environmental damage from overuse, one of the river’s most vocal advocates, Mary Ann Johnson, disagreed.
“We’re really not going to take the people off the river,” she said.
Others argued that there are already beaches at Rogers Park, Pine Island and SunWest, all a short drive away, that adding more traffic to two-lane Shoal Line Boulevard will create dangerous congestion, and that the county is already struggling to pay for its other 23 county parks.
Hernando County resident April Johnson-Spence said the preserve in its current passive recreation mode already gets more local visitors than other county parks without having to spend millions. “You have to raise our taxes to add another park for us. It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
But commissioners held steady to their ongoing support for the project.
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said there is support from the community for the beach and the recreational options but people who support it won’t speak in public because they are afraid of being drowned out by the aggressive opposition.
“This is just about a park,” he said.
Commission chairperson Steve Champion said that the county needs more recreation because existing parks fill up quickly and that nothing new has been added to the recreation scene since he grew up.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach and has repeatedly blasted his neighbors for not favoring tourist development in their community, said he wanted to see the project move forward. He has tried for eight years, he said, and will leave office later this month.
“Move on,” Dukes said to county staff. “Make it happen.”