HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando Beach residents worried that a local fish house will expand commercial fishing in their residential community are not alone in their concerns.
The Hernando County Port Authority strongly recommended denial of Hernando Beach Seafood's application for a property rezoning, citing navigational concerns in the Marlin Canal if the fishing business expands there.
The county planning staff also recommended denying the application last week, saying the rezoning is incompatible with the county's comprehensive plan for growth and does not fit with the community's development pattern.
Residents also are worried about falling property values, damage to their residential atmosphere and proliferation of vermin, bad odors, pollution and blight, which they say exist in the existing commercial fishing zone on Calienta Street.
Allen Sherrod, who represents the seafood company, has spent more than a year sparring with the unhappy neighbors on social media. The rezoning is better for the neighborhood than other possible uses for the property, Sherrod said, and Hernando Beach residents are selfish and unrealistic about future development.
Hernando Beach Seafood operates shrimp and stone crab boats on the Tarpon Canal, the northernmost and widest of the community's four direct-access canals. The Birren family, which owns the fish house on Calienta, wants to end crowded conditions, which have stone crabbers are going out the Tarpon Canal as shrimpers are coming in back in. That puts boats on boats, Sherrod explained to residents during a public workshop.
The rezoning would separate the two functions. The company would move its stone crab operation south to five parcels the Birrens own on Shoal Line Boulevard. Four of the parcels are waterside on the west side of Shoal Line. The last parcel, on the east side of Shoal Line, is where the company would cook stone crab claws, ice them and load them for shipment.
The company's half dozen or so stone crab boats already dock along the waterside property. They travel up the Marlin Canal during the stone crab season and out to the Gulf, skirt around coastal Hernando Beach to the main channel to check crab traps, then take their catch to the processing area on Calienta for cooking, icing and transport. The boats return on their circuitous route back out to the Gulf and down the Marlin Canal to dock off Shoal Line.
Under the proposed rezoning plan, the boats would take stone crabs straight back to the Marlin Canal docks and off-load them for processing. The company would continue processing shrimp on Calienta.
On Tuesday, the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the company's application to process crabs at a new site. Planning commission members can recommend approval or denial, and can request conditions on the applicant.
The ultimate decision rests with the Hernando County Commission. The date for that hearing is unclear because county legal staff said the applicant has not met requirements to notify affected property owners.
The Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, through its government affairs committee chairwoman Margo McConnell, has voiced strong opposition. McConnell's argument against the rezoning is included in materials before the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Residents packed a public information meeting on the matter in July and a Port Authority meeting in September. After the September session, Port Authority chairman Frank Santo wrote to the county, explaining the group's decision.
"We must consider the worst-case scenario, not the best-case scenario,'' Santos wrote. "Worst-case scenario is that if petitioner receives the requested zoning change, they would have the legal right to increase processing, as well as increase commercial fishing traffic on a canal that is simply not appropriate for such suggestion.''
Santos also was worried that other businesses would take advantage of a closer processing location.
"We have been told that there will only be five boats using this plant during crabbing season, (which lasts) about eight months," Santos wrote. "They have stated they will process fish during other months. At our meeting, our board repeatedly asked for verification that no additional boats would be added or increased use of this facility for outside processing.
"The spokesperson for the petitioner attempted to sidestep the question on each occasion, leaving us to believe there is no long-term intent to prevent this from happening.''
Statistics that show that shrimping and crabbing are increasing in the Hernando Beach area, Santos said, while the numbers are declining in surrounding areas.
"I believe this is the only way the petitioner can in the long-term re-coup the expense they have laid out to petition for this change,'' Santos wrote. "We as a Port Authority believe the petitioner was willing to gamble that we as a county would not recognize the long-term affect until it was too late. I truly believe the petitioner is only trying to make a better living, and all business owners are entitled to do so, but inside a residential community, we must be careful that the business trying to succeed is not out of sync with the pulse of the community."
The most important reason to deny the rezoning, Santos said, is that increased commercial fishing traffic on the Marlin Canal impacts the waterway used by the largest number of Hernando Beach residents.
"Add to this there are three blind curves and a fast-moving current during tidal flow that surges far greater than anywhere else within our community,'' Santos wrote. "This flow travels through one of the narrowest canals and outside channels we have. With that you can get a navigational recipe for potential disaster.''
County planners echoed the navigational concerns and added that the proposal could damage protected seagrass beds and marshes. In addition, the rezoning would create incompatible uses by mixing commercial and recreational watercraft.
The proposed site for new fish processing "does not meet the policy standard of minimizing the adverse impacts to the waterways in which the use is located,'' the report states.
Hernando Beach residents are short-sighted and only thinking of themselves, Sherrod said, adding that many of those opposing commercial boats on the Marlin Canal don't even own recreational boats.
Commercial fishing brings $30 million in business each year and provides about 65 jobs, he said.
"A family business which has been in business for the last 15 years is being run out by angry residents,'' Sherrod said. "I understand that they have an idea of what they think their neighborhood is, all rainbows and unicorns, but the reality is that there is going to be expansion in everything. There has to be growth or there is death.''
Hernando Beach residents don't have a right to say that every other community should house the grocery stores, gas stations and sewer treatment plants needed in a community so they can go home to neighborhoods not impacted by such facilities, he said.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.