Hernando Beach residents — tired of telling visitors there is no beach in Hernando Beach — might one day have a new response.
The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday will discuss a proposal to create a beach as part of a new park in the Weekiwachee Preserve. A conceptual drawing also shows activity areas, kayak launches, fishing areas, trails and 500 parking spaces.
The entrance would be off Shoal Line Boulevard across from the northern entrance road to Hernando Beach South.
Last summer, the commission considered spending $200,000 from the county’s "Quality of Life Capital Fund" to have Coastal Engineering do design and permitting work for the park, which was to be built in phases. Instead, commissioners approved only a "conceptual plan" on July 25, because the county hadn’t finalized a partnership arrangement for the project.
That partnership is with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud, which owns the preserve. Officials there want to trade preserve land — in a less environmentally sensitive area — with several county-owned sites that are more sensitive, according to County Administrator Len Sossamon.
The plan under consideration Tuesday has been in discussion for some time, Sossamon said.
About four years ago, the county received a $3 million state allocation to build the Nature Coast Education Center and committed another $3 million in local funds. Residents opposed the center, which was to be built next to the Blue Pelican Marina. Ultimately, that plan failed.
The county proposed a second site in the Weekiwachee Preserve, and commissioners opened discussions about building a beach on one of the northern lakes in the preserve. The lakes are abandoned mining pits, and locals often swim there.
That plan also was rejected, as were several other ideas for using the funding. Without a site, the county returned the $3 million to the state.
However, the county remained interested in the swimming plan, Sossamon said. Hernando Beach residents concerned about how their area was developing wrote a "vision plan" and reanimated talk of a beach on a northern lake.
That beach site didn’t work for Swiftmud, Sossamon said, because it was in the middle of a bird research area. Others voiced concerns about bear corridors.
The current plan puts the beach further south on the site.
Sossamon said he hopes a new park could relieve overcrowding on the Weeki Wachee River and in the county’s other coastal parks.
However, when the plan began to gel last summer, Fritz Musselmann, former land resources director for Swiftmud, voiced several concerns. Musselman was involved in state land acquisitions, including those in the Weeki Wachee area. He also lives on the Weeki Wachee River.
Musselman wrote in an email to county officials that the county hadn’t done enough to protect the river. He asked why the county would develop new recreational facilities "when it is not properly maintaining and sufficiently staffing what it already has?"
Musselman asked how the county would pay for improvements, maintenance and staffing for the new park and what kind of agreement the county would sign with Swiftmud.
"I suggest, as I am sure others will after reading this, that the County Commission fund initiatives that will fix or improve existing recreational facilities and opportunities before you spend tax dollars on new recreational opportunities,’’ he wrote. "Use some of that Quality of Life Capital Fund to help stop the degradation of the Weeki Wachee River and resurrect the quality recreational experience that once was the signature of the river.’’
Developing a park, if the commission and the Swiftmud Governing Board approve, will take time and millions of dollars, Sossamon said.
The Quality of Life fund might pay for some of that, he said. Another option is using some of the $15-20 million the county expects to receive over the next 15 years through the Restore Act. Restore Act funds come from damages paid by companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
First, the county and Swiftmud must determine what kind of land trade should happen.
Documents provided to the Tampa Bay Times by Swiftmud show three sites the agency may accept in a trade. One is off Cofer Road in Weeki Wachee. Another is the former site of the county’s wastewater treatment plant behind the Hernando Beach Water Tower. And the third is the site of the county’s garbage transfer station on Osowaw Boulevard.
The site of the transfer station, which is popular with nearby residents, is not on the table, Sossamon said.
If the project receives initial approval, parties will discuss conditions of the land trade, seek public comment and develop a plan based on that input, according to Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.