BROOKSVILLE — Since late last year, Hernando County commissioners have been fighting to buy four acres for expanded parking at the busy Hernando Beach boat ramp after politically influential realtor Gary Schraut offered the land for purchase.
They justified spending recreational impact fee dollars collected from across the county to pay for the land owned by Gulf Marine Investment Corp. The $400,000 purchase contract was for land the county property appraiser valued at $152,000.
Commissioners ordered a $13,665 feasibility study to examine the parcels and adjacent sites to figure out how many new parking spaces each would provide. They needed 125 spaces, according to an industry standard, but had just 91. The most expensive plan would have cost $3.4 million for construction, plus the price of the two Schraut parcels and two others.
For months, Hernando Beach residents said there were better, less expensive solutions. They expressed concern that the plan was designed to bring more tourists to their residential community, like an ill-fated tourism center slated for the area five years ago.
They provided photographic and anecdotal evidence that the lot was rarely full, even on busy summer weekends. They argued that using all of the county’s recreational impact fees, which were supposed to be spent in the district where they were collected, on one questionable project in far western Hernando County was at best improper and at worst illegal.
On Tuesday, commissioners conceded that additional parking spaces weren’t needed and that using impact fee funding was a bad idea.
Then they voted 4-0 to buy the land, anyway.
They cited the need to reroute Petit Lane at the southern edge of the Schraut parcels, which forces a sharp turn off Shoal Line Boulevard onto Calienta Street. And they decided to spend gas tax money, which is used to pay for roads.
Commissioner Steve Champion had pushed hard for the purchase.
"They don’t make any more land,'' he said.
During the last discussion, he argued that people were being turned away from the parking lots and that he couldn’t find parking when he wanted to put his boat in.
Hernando Beach resident Jodie Pillarella was among those who documented the many empty parking spaces in the existing lots. She also argued that boaters don’t use Petit Lane to come into the ramp, because it makes more sense for them to come in from the south.
Buying land for more than the property appraiser’s value "doesn’t sound like a bargain to me,'' Pillarella said.
Hernando Beach resident Diane Greenwell pitched an alternative site for more parking and for the rerouting of Petit Lane. She showed commissioners how to route boat trailers through a parcel owned by Gordon Wolf, former owner of the Blue Pelican Marina. That would take traffic out to Shoal Line in an alternative to the sharp turn at Petit Lane.
Several residents noted that the county, which is facing a $10 million general fund shortfall, should not be spending money for new projects. County commissioners responded that funds for the Schraut-represented properties were not coming from the general fund.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach, told commissioners they would be foolish to not approve the property purchase. The county spent $15 million to dredge the Hernando Beach Channel, an, even though his neighbors didn’t want to see outsiders using the facilities, the county was going to spend another $8 million on enhancements, including building artificial reefs in the future, he said.
Using impact fees for facilities that are not needed except for a couple of holidays per year didn’t make sense, said Commissioner John Allocco, but he supported fixing Petit Lane and hiring a "ramp bouncer'' — a county staffer to direct boat trailers at the ramp.
Champion also supported the dock master idea, saying that the lack of direction was making the ramp "like the Jerry Springer Show'' as boaters jockeyed for position in and out of the water. Commissioners said they want to add the dock master to next year’s budget.
Buying the land in Hernando Beach would never have been considered if it hadn’t been offered, said Commissioner John Mitten. But there are needs at the location, including fixing the boat ramp congestion, he said, and "Petit Lane is a nightmarish turn.''
Allocco asked whether the county could sell any leftover land once Petit Lane is rebuilt.
County administrator Jeff Rogers said that building a modern road, which officials have talked about as an extension of Flamingo Boulevard, would take quite a bit of land. And because the site is wet, it also could provide storage for draining water.
Adjacent Calienta Street, which takes boaters to the ramp, is in line for drainage fixes in the coming months. They will be funded from money the county is receiving from the British Petroleum oil spill legal settlement.
In addition to other arguments posed by Hernando Beach residents about why the county did not need the property, they also showed pictures Tuesday of Petit Lane and Schraut’s adjacent land under water after heavy rains earlier this month.