BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission, which has touted itself as business-friendly and regulation-wary, is launching two development initiatives this year. To complete them, commissioners intend to enlist the advice of local business people, some of whom could stand to gain from future development.
The first initiative is to create a committee to advise county staffers on how to grow, retain and recruit businesses into Hernando County. The second will redraw the county’s future land-use map, or FLUM, deciding where residential, commercial and industrial property will be allowed.
Both projects will help shape Hernando County’s future. Previous discussions of both have been controversial, in part because of which community member ideas are brought into the process and which are left out.
Project 1: A county economic development advisory committee
On Tuesday, county commissioners will discuss forming an Economic Development Technical Advisory Committee.
If approved, the committee "shall be comprised of seven to nine members and shall act in an advisory capacity to the County’s economic development staff regarding the economic development program,'' according to county administrator Jeff Rogers.
The committee was the idea of commissioners who wanted the stakeholders to be more involved, Rogers said.
Not all advisory groups are required to be covered by open meeting and open government rules, but Rogers said this committee will follow the state Sunshine Law and operate in public. It will have input on economic development topics, including "strategic planning, goal setting, prioritization, policies, programming, investments and incentives,'' he said.
Commissioner John Mitten said he sees the body as "basically a welcoming committee.'' Members could introduce business owners to reasons why Hernando County would be a good fit for them and provide information from local bankers, real estate experts and others who know the business community.
"From my perspective, we want a resource for the staff and the county,'' Mitten said. "We want to market Hernando County in the best and most effective manner.''
Commissioner John Allocco declined last week to comment on the committee "until after it is discussed with the board in the Sunshine. Premature input may be counterproductive and potentially destructive to needed conversation,'' he said.
Commissioners Wayne Dukes, Steve Champion and Jeff Holcomb did not return calls seeking input from the Tampa Bay Times.
Economic development in Hernando County has been controversial in the recent past. Former county Administrator Len Sossamon, fired by commissioners a year ago, also was the county economic development director. Politically influential realtor Gary Schraut accused Sossamon of making business deals to help another businessman, Tom Barnette. Schraut and Barnette have backed opposing factions of the all-Republican commission over the years and have provided financial backing for commissioners’ election campaigns.
Schraut and others also criticized Sossamon for being ineffective and striking economic development deals that didn’t succeed. After Sossamon left, commissioners appointed economic development manager Valerie Pianta to the top spot.
If approved, the advisory committee would work with Pianta, Rogers said, and should begin meeting by March.
Other economic development improvements are on the way, as well, he said. A proposal to revamp the county’s expedited-permitting program goes before commissioners this month, he said, along with consideration of a board policy "providing a stronger message of commitment to our economic development projects.”
The county has 19 active business projects in various stages of decision-making, Rogers said. Of these, 10 are existing industries considering expansion in Hernando County. They are largely in manufacturing, aviation and aerospace.
Hernando County has limited funding available for the deep-pocket incentives that surrounding communities offer to attract businesses.
"The County Commission has directed staff to approach incentives on a case-by-case basis,'' Rogers said. “Competitive projects will be brought to the board for consideration and review.
”First and foremost, the economic development office will continue to market and promote our community assets, such as location, affordability, education, workforce training programs and partnerships, an award-winning airport and tech center, available land and expedited permitting.''
Project 2: Redrawing the county zoning map
While the county works on economic development, it also will redraw the county’s land-use map. Officials will work on the latter, according to Rogers, with help from the county’s builders, realtors, Chamber of Commerce and Hernando Progress — a coalition of local business leaders in areas including healthcare, engineering and banking.
Those same players participated two years ago in rewriting the county’s comprehensive plan — the precursor to the land-use map — and at the time requested direct input on the new map now under consideration.
When asked whether other groups would be invited to comment, Rogers said: "At this point,the FLUM has only been reviewed for inconsistencies and necessary updates by the planning staff. A meeting to review the findings has been scheduled with the business alliance. There will be additional opportunities for public input and comment as the process moves forward.''
Mitten said he would not be surprised if some of those same business leaders also end up on the economic development committee. That would be understandable, he said, given the limited number of people with expertise who will participate in such projects.
The 2018 comprehensive plan update increased residential densities in Hernando County from 16 housing units per acre to 22 units per acre and assumed the county population would reach 236,200 by 2040. It currently stands at 187,000, according to the U.S. Census.
In the first quarter of this year, Rogers said, commissioners will review the land-use map, looking for revisions that may be necessary "to accommodate anticipated land use for the year 2040.''
Once that process is complete, their recommendations will be reviewed with Hernando County business leaders, as the leaders requested, Rogers said. A public hearing will be held before the Commission approves the new land-use map, he said.
The business group’s behind-the-scenes involvement on the comprehensive plan two years ago did not sit well with others in the community.
Citizens hoping to strengthen protections for Hernando County’s rural nature, drinking water supplies and wildlife corridors and to limit potential damage from mining and urban sprawl met with planners, sent correspondence and talked to commissioners. But they saw their ideas gutted after the business group met privately with county planners.
Brooksville resident DeeVon Quirolo spearheaded those efforts. She was upset that commissioners delayed their approval process to allow for the business group’s re-write.
"It was demoralizing when they just totally rolled over it,'' Quirolo said. "Frankly, I was discouraged by the outcome ... and have no indication from the county that any further efforts would make any difference whatsoever.''
Quirolo also fought unsuccessfully last year alongside dozens of residents trying to stop the Cemex mining expansion west of Brooksville. Commissioners are missing out when they don’t allow all sides to give input on critical decisions about the county’s future, she said.
"They are so consolidated in their firm grip on the power,'' she said. "When you’re not even given a spot at the table, you’re not hearing all of the perspectives.
"It’s a land-use planning map, and a whole lot more people than just the business community are affected by that. Every single person in the county has a stake.''