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Selling ‘negative mitigation?’

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The Hernando Sun 

A proposal for the first Hernando County mitigation bank has left county staff, officials and residents with serious concerns.  The proposal was submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) by Strategic Environmental Lands, LLC with the land owned by Triton Investments, Inc. (David C. Sasser, Ann S. Merritt) and Hernando Beach, Inc. (David C. Sasser, Rhonda Sasser).  David Sasser is a local Real Estate Law Attorney. The taxable value of the 158.9 acre property is $7,151.00.  Davud C. Sasser and Ann S. Merritt are the children of Charles Sasser Jr., developer of Hernando Beach, High Point and Brookridge communities. Rhonda is the wife of David C. Sasser.

A 130 page prospectus describes the project.  The project was discussed at a Feb. 20 Port Authority meeting, then again at the Feb. 26 BOCC meeting.   County Commissioners voted 5 – 0 to send a letter outlining their concerns to the Army Corps along with a letter from the Port Authority. SWFWMD is to receive the correspondence as well.  

The county is unsure how much pull they will have in regulating the project through county permitting processes. Hernando County Aquatic Services Director Keith Kolasa believes that SWFWMD will have some power through permitting.

The property is located along the northern boundary of Hernando Beach, along the boundary of Minnow Creek and portions of the Hernando Beach channel.  According to new FEMA maps, It is within a “Velocity Hazard Wave Action” area which is an area that reduces velocity of waves.

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Of primary concern is the removal of a portion of the Hernando Beach spoil islands as the removal of the spoil islands would most likely cause greater wind and water impact during a hurricane event.  Limerock embankments are to be leveled on certain portions of the spoil islands in order to plant mangroves. Kolasa showed slides on how this could greatly affect the flow of water, causing sedimentation in the Hernando Beach Channel.  Hernando County spent $12 million on dredging the canal in 2011.

“Reassurance is needed that no impacts will occur to the channel depth and no increase in turbidity will occur as the result of removal of stable areas of spoil islands that currently provide sheltering of deepest sections of the channel,”  states county documentation.

“Since FEMA has recently done the flood zones for the western part of the county, we feel it’s necessary to get these comments into the Army Corps.  It’s our recommendation that you authorize the chair to sign the attached letter, ” said Public Works Director and County Engineer Scott Herring addressing county commissioners.  

“The way the spoil islands function right now, they do provide more resilience to the coastal community of Hernando Beach,” said Keith Kolasa.

The review process has a short timeline and Kolasa stated that the county must submit their concerns by a March 8 deadline.  Hernando Beach residents received notice of the proposal in the mail from the Army Corps, while the county did not.

Some concerns may be addressed during the permit process, but that is not definite Kolasa remarked.   He said that the letter submission is the county’s only chance to get their concerns heard and there is no appeal process.

“Hopefully the concerns will be addressed as the Corps moves through the process,” stated Kolasa.

“Since when does the Army Corps move quickly,” asked Allocco.  “What’s pushing this?”

Commissioner Dukes pointed out that the county was required to spend several million dollars on seagrass for the spoil islands which may be destroyed during mitigation.  This concern is also outlined in the letter.  

Kolasa explained, “We have a 60 year lease on the channel- a sovereign lands lease through DEP.  Although we don’t own it, we have a maintenance responsibility- providing access to the Hernando Beach community.” 

Kolasa outlined the seven main points touched upon in the letter to the Army Corps:

  • Increased flooding risk – county is requesting modeling be done to ensure no changes to FEMA/maps and negative flood effects Channel impacts- Requesting modeling on surface flow
  • Seagrass impacts
  • Impacts to existing wildlife and unique habitat – requesting monthly survey be completed with data presented to regulatory agencies; document what’s there now
  • Boat ramp impacts if dredged material is brought to shore using the boat ramps 
  • Loss of access for boaters and fishermen – two well established boat routes go through the property
  • Demands on Law Enforcement- Prospectus refers to a “No Area Zone” which will require additional law enforcement activity.

“They are trying to restore something for financial gain. Is there going to be a net benefit in habitat or are they going to be removing good habitat to replace it with something else,” asked Kolasa.

Commissioner Allocco described the project as “selling negative mitigation.”

“In summary,” the letter states,  “Hernando County opposes the proposed mitigation plan due to the impacts to boaters (boater exclusion), the uncertain impacts to the public channel, and a reduction in the coastal resilience of the Hernando Beach coastal community which would likely result in a financial impact to both the County and its residents. Additionally, it’s unclear on whether a net benefit in wildlife habitat will occur since the unique structure of the islands currently provide essential wildlife habitat found nowhere else in the nearby coastal region. Due to the risks associated with this project, the information and studies requested above are needed before the County would consider supporting this project. Therefore, the County is requesting that the US Army Corps of Engineers request this information prior to moving forward with this project. We believe this basic information and analyses are essential due to potential impact to the overall Hernando Beach community and Hernando County.”

Chuck Morton with the Hernando County Port Authority questioned the point of planting mangroves as mangroves here are affected by our colder weather and are prone to freeze out during a cold snap.  He described mangroves that have been growing on Bayou Drive for many years that have only grown to a height of about 6 feet.  In the Florida Keys,  mangroves can grow to be 30 feet high. 

“Don’t see mangroves growing fast enough to mitigate the damage that’s going to be done,” said Morton.

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