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Opinions mixed as Hernando Beach residents, officials learn about plans for environmental center

The proposed Nature Coast Educational Plaza behind the Blue Pelican Marina is part of a plan to make Hernando Beach the epicenter of the Nature Coast.
The proposed Nature Coast Educational Plaza behind the Blue Pelican Marina is part of a plan to make Hernando Beach the epicenter of the Nature Coast.
Published Apr. 11, 2014

HERNANDO BEACH — On Monday, the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission will consider plans for an educational center and a lodge with rental cabins on Shoal Line Boulevard, behind Blue Pelican Marina.

The rezoning request for the proposal — which also includes a 55-foot-tall amphitheater, a museum and a visitors center — has Hernando Beach in a tither, especially since residents only recently began hearing about it.

The Nature Coast Educational Plaza, as the entire complex is being called, is a key component to County Administrator Len Sossamon's grand plan to make Hernando Beach the epicenter of the Nature Coast, drawing tourists by creating more for them to do.

Blue Pelican Marina representatives already have a scale model of the center built, the stretch of uplands selected for its construction and the floor plan drawn up — and they anticipate that the county will buy the site and build the center there.

Their application envisions the 31 acres behind the marina as part of an integrated plan for the business' future growth, and the plaza is key.

But county commissioners don't agree on where the $7 million plaza should go. And whether there will even be a plaza may rest with whether the county gets $3 million that Sossamon has asked state legislators to appropriate for the project.

Another $8 million could come the county's way via oil spill settlement money, but Sossamon says the timing of that money is unclear.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson doesn't favor the marina location for the project. He said the county should use land it owns such as a site near the soon-to-be-decommissioned Osowaw Boulevard sewage treatment plant.

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she could support the center on land the county owns across Shoal Line Boulevard from the Blue Pelican site. She recently stopped the county from selling that site, which is where the Hernando Beach water tower is located.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes has been working with Blue Pelican Marina owner Gordon Wolf and his brother, Ron Wolf, who has created the vision for the center and the other future marina projects.

While Dukes supports the idea of the education center at the marina site, he said the county is also working with the brothers to solve other issues in that corner of the coastal community, including expanding boat trailer parking and adding another boat ramp.

But Dukes is also clear that the educational plaza won't fly if the allocation from the state doesn't come through.

"It's all conceptual,'' he said. "Until the budget shows that the funds are available, it's not going to happen.''

• • •

Some residents of Hernando Beach say they have no desire to be an epicenter for tourism. And they don't like what they see in the marina's rezoning proposal.

They fear that existing problems in the community will be compounded, including dumping more traffic on narrow and dangerous Shoal Line Boulevard, further stress on a troubled sewer system and aggravating congested parking and loading at the community's boat ramp.

They also question the logic of destroying sensitive habitat to build a nature center to teach people about the importance of preserving the environment.

And, the residents want to know why they are just now finding out about this plan.

Resident Forrest Bennett was one of the first to notice the yellow rezoning signs on the marina property two weeks ago. He has since been spreading the word and formally protesting various aspects of the project with the county.

His concerns involve the environmental damage, lack of infrastructure, falling property values and a declining quality of life. Light pollution, noise pollution, failure to follow the county's own development codes and negative impacts on wildlife are also on Bennett's list of concerns.

If the project proceeds, he said, "the developers will make millions of dollars, and the families who call Hernando Beach their home will see their property values and quality of life plummet.''

Diane Overbeek, president of the Hernando Beach South Property Owners Association, said her board met Thursday to discuss the proposal. They had varying opinions, so she said she could only speak personally about the plan.

"I'm not opposed to some development there because it is an ugly tract of land. But what they are asking for is way over the top,'' Overbeek said. "I don't believe our infrastructure can handle it. The traffic is going to be astronomical. I'm concerned about the wetlands. What they're asking for would give them way too much leeway.''

Overbeek's counterpart at the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, Jude Simpson, could also only speak for herself, but was more positive about the project. "I think we need to expand our economic base, and we do have assets to offer,'' Simpson said. She said she could support the idea "if it could attract the tourists and protect the resources that make us attractive. But there has got to be a balance.''

On the other hand, resident Al Galeto said he was "very concerned." "This area doesn't have the facilities for that kind of thing," Galeto said. "I think it would be a disaster for us.''

He said he didn't want to see more traffic on Shoal Line or an entertainment venue or more transient people in cabins. He said he felt blindsided by news of the project coming so late.

"It's a bad reflection on Blue Pelican Marina,'' he said. "I thought of them as on the up and up, but this is putting a dark cloud on them.''

• • •

Ron Wolf wants to share his vision for the plaza because he believes it will benefit the community. He wants the rezoning done now because only shovel-ready projects will get any of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement money.

The entire focus of the facility will be on nature, Wolf says. There will be a theater that will be used to show nature-related programs and provide a place for speakers to talk on similar topics. The museum would also be focused on nature and history. A kitchen, meeting room, office space and inside and outside stages are also in the plan.

The housing units would be built later. Wolf's model for that portion of the plan includes a restaurant, a bar and a common area. The overall project, Wolf said, would create a sense of community pride while educating visitors and residents, making better use of the area's natural resources and helping all of the businesses in the area thrive.

And, he noted, it plays right into Sossamon's vision.

"It's all positive momentum," he said, "pushing his total agenda for economic growth for Hernando County in a positive way.''