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Who wouldn’t want a coastal, aquatic preserve? Lots of people, apparently

A proposed preserve off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties is drawing criticism as too restrictive.

If you boat offshore in the Gulf of Mexico between Anclote and Yankeetown, there’s a good chance seagrass is beneath your vessel. Lots of seagrass.

There are 400,000 acres of the ecologically important plant along the Nature Coast, including Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. But there’s no state management plan on how to protect it in its entirety.

The Pew Charitable Trusts wants to change that. It is urging Florida to designate the coastal areas off the three counties as the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. It would join 41 existing aquatic preserves in Florida totaling 2.2 million acres, the creation of which date to 1975.

Preserves on the Gulf Coast stretch from Big Bend to Tampa Bay except for the three-county gap of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus. Explanation for the 60-mile hole in the preserve are imprecise, but some said they believe the existence of power plants at Crystal River and Holiday led the state to carve out the three-county exemption in the 1970s.

"My goal basically is to fill in the gap. To keep it as clear and clean as it is today,'' said Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Beverly Hills, the sponsor of HB 1061 creating the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve.

Seagrass beds serve as a measure of water quality and provide habitat for a variety of marine life including scallops. A single acre of seagrass can support nearly 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates, such as lobsters and shrimp. The meadows exist close to land in shallow water, but can grow in deeper areas of the Nature Coast because of a gentle slope to the floor of the Gulf and clear water allowing sunlight to reach the plants, said the Pew Trust.

Related: Tampa Bay sea grassbeds expand

Massullo’s bill, and companion legislation in the Senate, SB 1042, requires the governor and his cabinet to maintain the preserve and puts limits on such activities as well drilling, dredging or filling submerged lands and installing structures other than docks. In existing preserves, the state delegated those oversight responsibilities to the Department of Environmental Protection.

But the public reaction has been mixed.

"I loved the concept until I read the bill,'' said Capt. Wendy Longman of Windsong Charters in New Port Richey.

"There is some good things in here, but the last thing we want to do, in my opinion, is over-regulate,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., also a licensed boat captain.

"There are so many things in here that are negative,'' said Commissioner Jack Mariano. "This clearly is not in our best interest.''

"I love conservation, but tread softly,'' said Hernando Commissioner Wayne Dukes.

On the flip side, 100 business owners in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties publicly pledged support for the effort. On Thursday, the Citrus County Commission is scheduled to consider doing likewise with either a resolution or letter of support.

Chuck Greenwell, a retired attorney and a director of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, brought the measure to the attention of Hernando County commissioners last month.

"This will be a positive for Hernando County and our future economic development,'' he said.

But commissioners on Tuesday were reluctant to support the legislation, particularly with looming projects to be financed by federal Restore Act dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.

"I’m just leery about anything to do with state. Are we giving up control?'' asked Commissioner Steve Champion. "It’s more red tape, isn’t it?''

Seagrass protection already is a priority for Hernando through its comprehensive plan and marine-area plan, said Keith Kolasa, Hernando’s aquatic services manager.

"To me, it’s not rocket science if you’re doing a good job,'' said Dukes. "More government is never, ever a good thing.''

Greenwell asked commissioners to consider the dollars and cents. According to research cited by the Pew Charitable Trusts, that includes a $600 million economic benefit, 10,000 jobs and 500 businesses tied to tourism, commercial and sport fishing in the Nature Coast.

"Doing right by the environment is doing right by business,'' Holly Binns, project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an interview.

Related: Seagrass beds show gains, but that was before sewage crisis

The economics also are at the heart of the objections.

Longman, who withdrew her previous public support for the bill, noted the legislation called for the preserve to extend all the way to U.S. 19. She wonders if her business, at the eastern end of the Gulf Harbors channel west of U.S. 19, would be able to replace its docks in the future.

Wells worried that the county won’t be able to follow through on planned boat dock expansions. He and Mariano both said they wondered about restrictions on the often-discussed dredging projects in Pasco’s coastal areas.

"I think some of the fears are unfounded,'' countered Massullo.

A proposed amendment, he said, will try to clear up the geographic ambiguities by specifying the preserve would be off-shore only. It would exclude inland waters and canals unless they already are involved in an existing preserve, he said.

This isn’t the first time the state has considered this legislation. A similar bill filed in 2014 never made it to the House floor for a vote and progressed no further than two Senate committees.

"It seems like something that would be almost a no-brainer to me,'' said Massullo.

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

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