BROOKSVILLE — To explain why a safe place is vitally needed for children fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moisheloae Leid Fedorovsky told a Hernando County planning board Monday about the destruction of homes and schools in his native country and the millions of his fellow Ukrainians who have been forced to flee.
Fedorovsky, an American citizen now, explained how his wife and other friends under the name Torah Ora, Inc., want to help by creating transitional housing for elementary and middle school Ukrainian children on two properties north of Weeki Wachee.
“We have a lot of friends and a lot of relatives still in Ukraine,” he said at the Planning Commission meeting, noting “they live in constant fear.”
Up to 100 children would be served on the properties, one site for boys and one for girls. They would learn English and eventually transition into the local schools. The staff, Fedorovsky said, are well versed in education.
“It’s very, very painful for us and we really hope everyone supports our decision to save children’s lives,” said Orit Gobaty, an officer in the corporation and owner of the properties.
After hearing from more than an hour of comments from neighbors near the site, planning commissioners unanimously voted to reject the special exception use permit the group needed for its project. A vote on the second application for the second site was postponed indefinitely after the group members left the meeting following a break after the first vote.
If Torah Ora doesn’t appeal the decision to the Hernando County Commission, it is final.
The two parcels proposed for the use total about nine acres and are located off Long Lake Avenue north of Weeki Wachee in a neighborhood of larger home lots. They proposed building additional modular structures on the site to house the children, who would be in the United States on a visa for the next three years.
But nearby residents said the use would not fit on the site and they worried what would happen when the three years is over, even though the county would require any change of use to again go through the planning commission.
Others worried about traffic, property values, evacuation issues since the site is west of U.S. 19 and disruption in their quiet neighborhood.
“We all moved here to have peace and quiet,” said neighbor Karen Young. “I’m sorry for the war in Ukraine. I’m sorry for the children,” she said but the transitional housing plan would take away the reason people moved to the neighborhood.
Kerrie McGregor said she lives on 10 acres north of the site. She wanted permission from the county to put one housing unit on her lot to care for her elderly parents but was denied. McGregor said she had a problem with that and yet, “we can take care of people from another country?”
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Others questioned whether profit was the motivation of the corporation given all the funding available for helping Ukrainian refugees. The applicants, though, said they did not intend to take government funds for their project.
The Hernando County reaction to Ukrainian refugees is different that what has happened elsewhere in the area.
Last month the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando wrote an open letter to President Joe Biden saying they would welcome Ukrainian citizens into their communities. “For generations Florida cities have welcomed refugees with open arms,” they wrote.
On Monday Tampa Mayor Jane Castor reaffirmed that position through her spokesman Adam Smith. “Tampa will do all we can to help Ukrainian families in need. That’s who we are as a community,” Castor said.
Hernando planning commission members said they too were sympathetic but that they could not find that the transitional housing plan was compatible with the surrounding area.
Planning commission member W. Steven Hickey said he had a close friend who has adopted seven children from Ukraine but “I think this should be rejected as much as it is needed but not in this time and this place.”
“It’s hard not to have compassion,” said planning commission member John Carroll. “Innocent citizens shouldn’t be going through what they’re going through.”
However, he said the plan puts transitional housing into a agricultural residential district which is not appropriate. “You’ve got to find the right location,” Carroll said.
Times Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report