BROOKSVILLE — For five years, Hernando County has prepared for its first formal redevelopment area by gathering community input for a plan to upgrade the area around Kass Circle. The blighted neighborhood, which includes the Spring Hill Plaza, served as the community’s first town center.
County commissioners approved the plan last month, but not the dedicated funding source normally associated with redevelopment. That would give the neighborhood an unfair advantage over the rest of the county, they said.
Commissioners also had to approve the 88-page redevelopment plan without one element — a community park envisioned nearby with a playground, walking trails, a music sculpture play area, fitness equipment and picnic bench pavilions. That’s because while their staff was developing the plan, commissioners sold the 6.3-acre park site on Pinehurst Drive to Hartland Homes, the home-building company owned by state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.
Pinehurst Neighborhood Park, as it was called in the plan, was proposed for development between 2025 and 2035 at a cost of $245,000. The narrative describes the need for a park because only Pioneer Park, which focuses on skateboarding activities, is nearby.
Area residents and business people identified the need for a park. The park would have been outside the redevelopment area, so special funds could not have been used to build it.
After an hour-long discussion about the Kass Circle plan, county Administrator Jeff Rogers told commissioners they must drop the park because of the contract for sale.
Commissioners unanimously approved the rest of the plan, but without the dedicated redevelopment funding, which planners estimated could bring in $3.8 million to improve the neighborhood over the next 30 years.
The unique funding would be “charity, basically” for that portion of Spring Hill, argued Commissioner Steve Champion. Property values are lower there, and Spring Hill Plaza has empty storefronts.
It’s not fair to subsidize that “run-down” area, where people don’t pay as much in taxes, Champion said, adding that "U.S. 19 and State Road 50 have taken all of the business away, and it’s never going to come back, in my opinion.''
Formally established community redevelopment areas like Kass Circle can use a special funding tool called tax-increment financing. It allows a county to set aside taxes generated by property value increases for improvements in that area.
The idea is to have the county invest in the community to encourage private investment, county development services director Ron Pianta explained. A redevelopment plan is "aspirational,'' he said, and would allow "the county make a commitment to the community so that it can improve itself.''
If Kass Circle needs sidewalks, road improvements or other capital projects, the community should get them funded like other places in the county, said Commissioner John Allocco.
"I’d love to see the area improve,'' he said. "I have a large concern about how this is going to move forward, and then the next thing is there will be the Hernando Beach CRA and the Masaryktown CRA ... I think we’re opening up a can of worms.''
Providing a special category of taxes to benefit Kass Circle would be at the expense of the rest of the county, he said.
Not all communities meet the criteria for community redevelopment, Pianta said. In 2016, when the commission approved the Kass Circle community development, it had to state that the area was blighted and in need of help.
Because Kass Circle has smaller houses with poorer residents, that is "why we have the issues we have,'' including the need for a stronger police presence, Champion said. "I don’t think it’s fair taking from the rest of the county.''
Commissioner John Mitten called raising up a neighborhood with significant problems a "big-city'' idea. He agreed that the commission tends to spend money in bigger growth areas, but said that some of the smaller items for Kass Circle, such as better signage, might be possible within limited county budgets.
Other commissioners agreed.
Rogers said he would begin to work those projects into future county budgets.
"In 20 years, none of us will still be here,'' he said, "and if you want it to change, you need a plan for it.''