Commissioners unanimously approved moving forward with a lease agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) for the development of a recreational venue within the Weekiwachee Preserve, with a modification.
At the regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on April 11, 2023, the board discussed the changes the county faces.
SWFWMD’s agreement would allow for access from the former R Beach parking lot and also allow for enhanced trails in the area. Trail access will also be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. However, the lease proposal by SWFWMD will not allow for the county’s original plans to construct trails into the north side of the recreation area, which contains currently undisturbed vegetation.
The commissioners’ approval includes modification of the site plans to conform to SWFWMD’s limits, including that the swimming area will only be able to proceed if the county purchased the property rather than lease it.
The county will need a funding mechanism in order to make the purchase in the future.
Commissioners expressed their approval of a staged approach, beginning with a boardwalk and trails allowing entry into the preserve from the former R Beach parking lot.
County Administrator Jeff Rogers explained that the park will be constructed in the “already disturbed mine area and not expand into the vegetated preserve.” Furthermore, commissioners are in agreement that the new recreation area, with the proposed name Mermaid Lakes, is a much-needed addition to the County’s parks collection.
“You have no recreation around here,” Commissioner Steve Champion said. “I know I’ve said it 100 times, but it’s the same exact recreation we had 40 years ago when I was a kid.”
The majority of local residents in attendance voiced their approval during the Citizens’ Comments segment. Yann Milcendeau, the owner of the Hernando Beach Motel, Silver Dolphin Restaurant, and two other businesses in the area, is in favor of the plan.
Bill Roberts of Hernando Beach captured the top issues in his comments, “The county needs the recreation … it really needs to be developed with mindful, smart development.”
Walter Connolly, a resident of the Bayport area since the seventies, is opposed to “such an ambitious plan” when other parks and recreation areas are underutilized. He mentioned the boardwalk that “was allowed to crumble under Hernando County’s care.”
“It’s taken a long time for it to be rebuilt. This is an opportunity for recreation that has basically been put on the back burner, so (the County) can have another project.”
Chairman John Allocco addressed Connolly’s assessment of the Jenkins Creek boardwalk. “It was several boards ago that made the decision to go after the (Event Horizon oil spill settlement) to try to replace the boardwalk at (Linda Pedersen Park). It was an attempt to ease the tax burden on the community. The way the state, unfortunately, dealt out the money, it became very difficult, and it was a long, tedious process.” Allocco believes that decision was made in 2012.
Carol Crane, a wildlife and marine biologist and Hernando Beach resident suggested that SWFWMD’s recent limitations on land use are not about power or politics but about preserving land for bears and big cats to have a habitat without using land where people have built homes. Crane suggested that the former R Beach building could be reconstructed into a marine studies center.
The County did not set a date to review the modified site plans at this meeting.