BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners faced criticism last year after they agreed to sell Hartland Homes 40 acres of Spring Hill properties originally set aside for community parks. They argued that the land was surplus and should be on the tax rolls.
Hartland Homes is owned by state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.
On Monday, more than 30 Spring Hill residents appeared before the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission for emotionally-charged rezoning hearings on the six separate parcels. They clearly considered these park lands, and used and maintained them as such.
Three hours later, five of the six rezonings were recommended for approval to the County Commission, two with fewer home lots than requested. One rezoning was denied.
And one planning commission member, John Scharch, refused to recommend any for approval. They should all be allowed to stay recreational areas, he said, as originally planned by Spring Hill developer Deltona Corporation.
Scharch said he saw the park areas as a miniature Central Park for neighborhoods of Spring Hill where people could enjoy green spaces.
Several times during the volatile discussion, Planning Commission chairwoman Alia Qureshi asked residents to be respectful. And assistant county attorney Kyle Benda admonished Planning Commission members to stick to the issues of compatibility with surrounding homes and the county’s comprehensive growth plan.
Even county planning director Ron Pianta twice chided Scharch, saying it was not the commission’s job to decide what land to declare surplus and what taxing decisions should be made.
Don Lacey of Coastal Engineering said again and again that Hartland Homes would follow all county rules about drainage and traffic. In each application, the request was for lots compatible with the neighborhood and that matched the land use in the comprehensive plan.
Residents who gathered signatures on petitions in recent days kept shifting the focus from less planning-related to more human-related concerns.
They questioned that the sales were made to a business owned by Ingoglia, who has political ties to commissioners, including Jeff Holcomb. Holcomb is a realtor who regularly talks up Hartland Homes on his Facebook page and who followed both Ingoglia and fellow Commissioner John Allocco as chairman of the local Republican Executive Committee.
Some residents said they didn’t know about the sales until yellow signs went up in the neighborhood a couple of weeks ago announcing Monday’s meeting. Several said they would have been happy to buy and maintain the land as green spaces.
Others blasted the county for its sales method, giving Ingoglia’s company a bargain price of $10,000 per acre when smaller home lots were selling for more.
Most talked about picking out their home sites based on the nearby green space. Some were told that the land was a bird sanctuary that could not be developed. Again and again, residents said they wanted to escape more urban areas for a home where there were still birds and animals. They said they maintained park areas and built trails there so local children could play in relative safety.
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What would happen to the bald eagles, scrub jays and gopher tortoises, they asked. County officials assured them the developer would have to follow all rules related to any protected species found on the parcels.
"It doesn’t seem right,'' said Mark Hahn, who lives near one of the parcels. Selling the lots to Ingoglia was a conflict of interest, he said, and neighbors don’t want houses in there.
"If you’re going to sell it for $10,000 an acre, I want some acres,'' he said.
Robert Kizer said he also would have bought land to protect it and the wildlife there if he had known about it. How did the land go for such a low price, he asked, noting it seemed like "someone was rubbing shoulders'' with the buyer.
Kimberly Schwirian, who lives by the former park site on Pinehurst Drive, said she and her husband were told that the spot would be a park.
"It’s unfair,'' she said. "Our state representative gets to do whatever he wants because he’s the government, and you’re buddies.''
Matt Fox spent two days canvassing his neighbors near the 5.5-acre site on Laredo Avenue. Whether they were there for 40 years or had just moved in, Fox said, "people were told that land would remain park land ... untouched.''
Fox urged planning commissioners to serve the people who elected them and said he felt the community’s best interests were betrayed. County officials pointed out that planning commissioners are not elected, but the county commissioners are. The Hernando County Commission will conduct a final hearing on the applications on March 10.
Amy Sanchez, who lives near the Holiday Drive parcel, said she bought her parcel 12 years ago and that her children have seen the wildlife grow and thrive nearby.
"I feel like somebody was dishonest along the way,'' she said. "When is the county going to say enough? We need to preserve this area for kids growing up and their kids growing up.''
Planning commissioners recommended denial of rezoning on the Holiday Drive site. They based that decision on traffic congestion, which would be complicated by placing the 12 requested home sites there.
At one point, Planning Commission member Steven Hickey noted that the sites had sat undeveloped under the county’s ownership for decades.
"It’s time to get them back on the tax rolls,'' he said.
Planning Commission chairman Qureshi told unhappy residents that their hands were tied when it seemed that requested lot sizes and other details fit with other parts of Spring Hill.
"It’s very difficult to say you can’t have that here, too,'' she said. "This may not be what we would have wanted, but we have to do the best we can.''
Ultimately, the Planning Commission recommended approval of rezoning applications that could place 44 houses on approximately 33 acres.