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DeWitt: Hernando commissioners ignored people's wishes on natural land

Published Aug. 6, 2015

By, among other things, ignoring voters who asked them to protect natural land, state lawmakers this year set a new standard for arrogant disregard of both the people and the environment.

Last week, the Hernando County Commission just about matched them.

As the Times' Barbara Behrendt has reported, the commission voted to disband the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee, which was created more than 25 years ago as the result of a majority vote of the people.

Diane Rowden was the only commissioner who showed any understanding or appreciation for the committee's role, the only one who expressed the appropriate emotion once it had been unceremoniously dumped.

"I'm appalled," Rowden said.

This was not only a sneaky power play by Commissioner Wayne Dukes; it seemed designed to produce exactly what it did — a decision based on ignorance.

Dukes had the item placed on the commission's meeting agenda as just a discussion, with no hint that the committee might be disbanded, no backup documents to inform the public or commissioners, no staffer presentations, no formal notice to members of the committee that guides the program.

The majority of commissioners seemed suspiciously well prepared to roll out the standard, wrongheaded argument against land purchases — that more than one-third of county land is publicly owned and generates no property tax.

Then Commissioner Jeff Holcomb presented an argument that was just plain wrong. Give Holcomb extra points for voting with Rowden because he said the decision should be delayed to allow for proper consideration; take these points away for showing he needed that consideration more than anybody.

"Most of the time, when they say they want sensitive land, they want sensitive untouched , un-walking, un-doing, nothing happens on this land," he said.

Let's let Gene Kelly, a biologist with a long history of working for state agencies and environmental groups — and of volunteering for this board every year since its founding — show Holcomb why his statement is more than just incorrect; it's the exact opposite of the truth.

The only inaccessible ESL project is the Peck Sink Preserve, which has a vital role in flood control and water purification, and is closed to the public only because some of these same commissioners were too cheap to buy a few picnic tables and educational signs that were part of the originally planned park. Otherwise, the list of lands the committee acquired or maintains is an all-star collection of just the kind of outdoor recreational attractions the county needs to promote itself as the Adventure Coast.

It includes Jenkins Creek Park, Lake Townsen Preserve, Fickett Hammock Preserve, Cypress Lakes Preserve and Bayport Park. They offer hiking and horseback trails, picnic pavilions, playgrounds, boat ramps, fishing piers, observation platforms and, to show just how wrong Holcomb was, gateways to larger tracts of preserved land.

These are not just great assets, they're pretty much our only great assets. Sorry to break it to you, fellow Hernando residents, but we don't have world-class museums to fall back on.

So, it's crucial to keep this lineup in shape and be ready to add to it intelligently when money becomes available, which are the ESL's two main jobs.

Commission Chairman Nick Nicholson said the $6.1 million pot of money that pays for all of this maintenance (at a rate of $442,000 per year) won't be touched, which is a nice to hear but completely at odds with the commission's record of previously hijacking the stream of tax money collected as part of the original ESL tax levy — just as the state Legislature hijacked the voter-approved Amendment 1 money that was supposed to be spent on environmental land.

There is a slim sliver of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. Rowden has vowed to bring this matter up again at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Given that 72 percent of Hernando voters supported for Amendment 1, I would expect plenty of people to show up.

I would expect them to demonstrate great popular support for preserving natural areas. I would expect them to present overwhelming evidence that this is of huge benefit both to the environment and the economy.

And, sadly, I expect the commission to ignore them.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.