BROOKSVILLE — A divisive Hernando County Commission on Tuesday listened to four hours of debate before approving a rezoning request from Gordon Wolf who wants to expand his Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach.
After the 3-2 vote, some of the dozens of residents who packed the commission chambers to voice their opposition to the rezoning let loose with a few epithets hurled at the trio of commissioners who gave the thumbs up to Gordon Wolf and his brother Ron, who has also been working on the proposal.
The meeting was punctuated throughout by the occasional catcall from the audience, prompting admonitions from Chairman Wayne Dukes for decorum or else he would clear the chambers.
After the lengthy debate, the board sided with their planning staffers to allow the expansion, albeit with an almost unprecedented 28 conditions.
But what ignited this rezoning attempt was an inclusion in the original application that allowed for the building of an educational-cultural center with outdoor amphitheater on a piece of the property. Beach residents had vigorously opposed that proposal since it was broached in April and they let loose with their displeasure again Tuesday.
Instead, Dukes called for a short recess so that county staffers could meet with legal counsel for the applicant to discuss a motion put forth by Commissioner Dave Russell.
After that recess, Ron Pianta, assistant county administrator for planning & development, read into the record an amended plan that clarified Russell’s motion. The vote ensures that Wolf will only be able to use the property for “passive” recreational uses, such as picnic grounds, recreational trails and kayak sales.
Implicit in that vote is the fact that the applicant would not construct a nature center, museum or amphitheater. Commissioners also made it clear that they are not obligated to partner with Wolf to build such a center using taxpayer money. That option had been floated by the Wolf brothers.
But many residents said this was a back-door way for the applicant to seek out a private entity to develop the property and create the kind of congestion they don’t want for the beach area.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson was furious after the vote, saying he had never before seen a recess granted so that staff could meet with the applicant, in this case Attorney Joe Mason, to make sure both sides were on the same page.
“That’s wrong,” Nicholson shouted.
Nicholson said such a major change to the master plan should have been re-presented with the standard public comments at a later meeting.
Commissioner Diane Rowden also objected, saying the project had too many staff conditions and she wanted to postpone the vote and allow the applicant to return with a re-worked proposal.
Rowden’s motion to table the rezoning until a later time died after only getting one backer, Nicholson.
Both of them eventually ended up voting against the new motion from Russell.
The agreed-upon rezoning allows Wolf to expand his marina, add a lodge with rental cottages for tourists on the 30-acre property and provide parking for RVers who want to stay overnight.
Dozens of beach residents complained that such a location would negatively impact their quality of life, clog narrow Shoal Line Boulevard and disturb the coastal tranquility.
Resident Holly Hawkins said if there is such a need for lodging in Hernando Beach, then tourists can go up the road to U.S. 19 and stay at motels.
“If Hernando County wants to be the Nature Coast, I don’t think we need to be bringing in cottages and things like that,” Hawkins said. “It will ultimately encroach on the nature.”
This project will “open the door” to future encroachment, she said.
Mason, representing Wolf — who was going under the name 5000 Calienta Street LLC — moved quickly before the discussion even began to strike the reams of correspondence sent to the county from residents opposing the expansion from the discussion.
Mason called the correspondence hearsay, slanderous and not representing expert testimony.
Commissioners agreed to not include that correspondence.
The Wolf brothers had originally presented to the board a concept that included a partnership with the county for the educational-tourism center, to be located near their facility.
But that idea was recently put on the back burner after commissioners expressed more interest in locating that facility at the Weekiwachee Preserve, which could be developed into a public beach.
Mason said his client has no intention of going forward with such a Nature Coast center if the county chooses to locate elsewhere.
The state has agreed to appropriate $3 million toward construction of such a center and Hernando County has agreed to match that.
It has not been determined where such a center would be built. The latest site, at the Weekiwachee Preserve, has also come under fire by residents who believe it would spoil the environment and destroy animal habitat.