The much-discussed but never approved plan to create a beach on a mining lake in the Weekiwachee Preserve has once again been rejected by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
In a letter to Hernando County officials this week, the agency, which owns the preserve, told Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers that it is willing to grant the county a new access point and new passive recreational options in the 11,206-acre preserve. But it rejected the beach plan, which has generated opposition from nearby residents and environmental groups.
Water management officials could consider the plan again in five years, but only under specific conditions.
If the county wants to develop the beach in the future, it must purchase the land and would have to prove it can meet all governmental permitting requirements. It also would need a financial plan to purchase and build the beach and other amenities and manage and maintain the property in an environmentally responsible manner.
Those conditions are both challenging.
The price tag of the recreational amenities Hernando wanted to add to the preserve topped $7.7 million without considering a land purchase cost on top. Hernando officials put their hope in paying those costs on the passage of a sales tax referendum, but 55 percent of Hernando’s voters rejected that half-cent, 10-year levy in November.
The county also would have to prove that the public embraces the beach idea, according to the letter from the agency’s Brian Starford, director of operations, lands and resource monitoring.
At the public meeting in October, Hernando County commissioners listened to hours of testimony against the idea from environmental groups, nearby residents of Hernando Beach and a citizens group that included a number of high school students called Preserve the Preserve. Previous efforts over the last two decades have also generated strong opposition and county-run surveys about the proposal were also largely negative.
Still, Rogers is holding out hope that a beach may win approval at some point. While the beach has been rejected for now, he told the Tampa Bay Times that water management district officials have indicated they might be willing to talk sooner than five years from now. He said it was understandable that, with the liabilities involved, the district didn’t want to be in the swimming business.
He is sure that the things the agency has approved, such as allowing access to the preserve from the land the county bought on Shoal Line Boulevard for a new parking lot last year, will provide much-needed passive recreational opportunities in the preserve.
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The district rejected both a proposed land swap for several Hernando County properties and the management agreement proposed by the county but indicated it is willing to negotiate a new management agreement.
What is approved, Starford told Rogers, is improving existing amenities and trails in a smaller area of the preserve than originally requested, using the new Shoal Line Boulevard entrance, building a boardwalk or bridge across the canal along the road at the new entrance and expanding nonmotorized boating access, including a kayak launch.
“The county has attempted this two or three times before, but I can tell you we’ve never gotten so close,” Rogers said. “As for the swimming, I’m not sure the commissioners are going to be 100% excited about having to buy (the property) … but I’m thankful that there’s a way forward and we’ll discuss it at a commission meeting.”