HERNANDO BEACH — County leaders ran into a wall of opposition to developing part of the Weekiwachee Preserve into a beach and park during public meetings this week.
It was a resounding “thumbs down” from the 80-plus people gathered at the Hernando Beach Coast Guard Auxiliary on Wednesday night.
The county proposes building a 20-acre public beach on a lake that was left from pervious mining activity, an educational-tourism center, playground, parking lot and snack bar.
Residents, however, had other ideas.
The common theme among the 30 or so speakers: Don’t mess with nature.
“This is a preserve,” said resident Mac Davis. “Preserves are for animals. Parks are for people. This location is bad.”
Davis was one of several people who worried that bringing more people and cars to the Weekiwachee Preserve would endanger the black bear population that is known to inhabit that corridor.
“When people and bears get together, the bears lose,” he said.
Others were concerned with the birds. Bev Hansen, an Audubon Society member, said there are 253 species of bird in the preserve and 75 species of butterflies — all of which will be affected by development.
Judith Simpson, a former business owner, said the county is rushing into this project without a well thought-out business plan.
“This is an enormous undertaking,” Simpson said.
Development of the preserve, she said, has the potential of harming the county’s reputation for eco-tourism and discouraging tourism.
“This project is going to hurt everyone’s pocketbook,” Simpson said.
This was the first of two such hearings designed to gauge resident and stakeholder reaction to the proposed building of an educational-tourism center inside the 11,206-acre preserve off Osowaw Boulevard. The second one was scheduled for Thursday night in Brooksville.
The project would also include development of a 20-acre public beach, with paid parking.
Karen Smith of Aripeka said the preserve could not compete with SunWest Park, under development about five miles south on U.S. 19 in Pasco County.
Like the Weekiwachee Preserve, SunWest is also reclaimed mining land and county commissioners there hope to have a beach, riding and nature trails and recreational activities for locals and tourists.
Smith said tourists coming north on U.S. 19 pass SunWest first and will not even make it as far as Hernando County.
“Where are people going to go?” she asked. “I don’t think they’ll ever get past SunWest. I think we have a big marketing problem here.”
There were a few supporters on hand too, who believe the beach-center would be a plus for the area.
Many were against a former proposed location, off narrow Shoal Line Boulevard. But they said the preserve, about five miles to the southeast, offers more space and fits in better with the concept.
Beach resident Forest Bennett, for example, told the crowd he thinks the Osowaw site would work and that the low-impact development would not be detrimental to animal habitat.
Gary Morse, spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, declined to comment Thursday on the black bear concerns.
“We would have to see the (development) plan before we comment on it,” Morse said.
However, if there are any scrub jays or gopher tortoises on the preserve property set aside for development, that would be a concern, he said.
Both are protected species, he said.
Brian Malmberg, assistant county administrator for operations, began the hearing with a slide presentation showing an overview of the project.
Phase one would begin construction of a beach on one of the freshwater lakes. There would be 160 designated paid parking spots for visitors, a small snack shack, and playground.
Phase two would complete the beach development, another 240 parking spaces, completion of a food service area and three playgrounds.
Malmberg said the preserve is already frequented by hikers, bikers, fishermen and bird-watchers. And there are people who mar the preserve by littering or other actions so having it developed with supervision would give the county “eyes out there,” he said.
Also, Malmberg said there will be minimal impact to the pristine environment.
County Administrator and Economic Development Director Len Sossamon said staffers have looked at other areas, including the Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas County, to determine the best ways of development.
Sossamon has said the project, with the working title of the Nature Coast Experience, will draw tourists from the region and pump money into the local economy.
The state has earmarked $3 million for its construction and Hernando County has vowed to match that appropriation.
“This is a proposed project,” Sossamon reminded them. “It is not a done deal.”
Valerie Pianta, the county’s economic development supervisor, said she was not surprised at the volume of opposition because that is typical in public hearings. People who are satisfied with projects generally don’t show up, she said.
Pianta said there were many constructive comments made that will be considered as the process moves along.
“I think we got the input we wanted,” she said.