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After backlash, Hernando commission restores Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee

BROOKSVILLE — After stirring up a firestorm when it suddenly and without warning disbanded the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee two weeks ago, the Hernando County Commission voted Tuesday to reinstate the committee — but with some changes.

A discussion of the Environmentally Sensitive Lands program had been placed on the commission's July 28 agenda, but no backup material was included. Commissioner Wayne Dukes made a motion to immediately disband the advisory committee, which helped guide the program, and his motion passed.

But Commissioner Diane Rowden argued that the program, established by a vote of residents in 1988, and the volunteer committee should not be disbanded without warning, and asked that the item be revisited on Tuesday.

Ron Pianta, assistant county administrator for planning and development, outlined for commissioners how the ESL program has functioned.

Gene Kelly, a longtime member of the ESL committee, explained the role the committee had played and its mission — "enhancing the quality of life for Hernando County residents both in the present and the future."

He said those who have been on the committee have rolled up their sleeves to work for the program.

"We have been willing to put in the volunteer time because we are committed to the goals of the program," Kelly said.

Some residents supported the commission's previous action. Shirley Miketinac said the government needed to protect personal property rights rather than buying up land to put in public ownership. Her points were reiterated by Barbara Bartlett, who said the county should stand against what is known as Agenda 21, a program under which some believe the government is working to remove personal property rights.

Lynn Gruber-White, president of the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association, had voiced approval of the committee's abolition, but said Tuesday that she would work to find some compromise.

Others argued that the program needed to be restored.

"I don't understand your opposition to land acquisition," said former committee member, George Foster. "Voters overwhelmingly support it."

Environmentally sensitive lands protect against flooding, provide recreation, draw tourists and "enrich our lives," said Miki Renner, representing the Hernando chapter of the Native Plant Society.

"This program has been well managed, efficiently and economically, leveraging local resources and using highly experienced local volunteers for both planning and land management,'' Renner said, urging reinstatement.

"Creating a thriving community for the future doesn't happen by accident," said former ESL committee member Forrest Bennett. "It takes long-term vision, planning, fiscal prudence and wise and courageous decisions by our elected representatives.

"To see Hernando County reach its full potential, our leaders must preserve our most precious natural resources. The ESL program is the cornerstone of that foundation.''

Commissioner Jim Adkins made a motion to re-establish an ESL committee, but limit it to seven members rather than 11. Fellow commissioners agreed, adding a requirement that applications be sought for the new committee; members will be limited to two consecutive four-year terms.

No new lands would be targeted for acquisition by the committee. The group would help manage existing environmentally sensitive land sites around the county. The program currently has a fund balance of $6.2 million, but takes in no new money.

Commissioners unanimously approved the changes to the program.

Rowden thanked commissioners for allowing the issue to be revisited and for working across party lines to find a compromise.

Dukes, who had made the previous motion to abolish the committee and took the most political heat in emails afterward, said he had gotten frustrated with the committee over work it had done planning for land acquisitions in the Ridge Manor area.

"I knew that my actions at the last meeting would bring this thing to a head, and we accomplished that,'' Dukes said. "That was my goal.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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