HERNANDO BEACH — Six years ago, the Hernando County Commission proposed making Hernando Beach into a tourism hub, stirring up a hornet’s nest of outrage in the coastal community.
Now, a small group of Hernando Beach residents and business owners have talked to county officials about their “vision plan” for doing exactly that. Many of their neighbors are none too happy about it.
“My fear is that this plan will be secretively and prematurely presented for inclusion in the county’s comprehensive plan, being misrepresented as having community support, as it does not,” Jodie Pillarella wrote to county Administrator Jeff Rogers and planning department officials.
Rogers said he and his staff met with representatives of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association last week at their request.
But he was clear on one point: “This plan is the vision of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association. It is not the Board of County Commissioners’ plan.”
His direction to property owners was to keep working with their community, but Hernando Beach has a long history of residents with divergent opinions.
In 2014, county commissioners wanted to build a $6 million Nature Coast Education and Tourism Center in Hernando Beach. It would go in next to the Blue Pelican Marina on property owned by Gordon Wolf, who also owned the marina. The county and state would split the cost of the center, and Wolf would build a lodge alongside it.
Residents railed against the idea of strangers overloading the narrow Shoal Line Boulevard — the only road in and out of Hernando Beach — and spilling into the quiet, canal-front neighborhoods that stretch out to the Gulf of Mexico. Plus, aside from a public boat launch and the restaurants on Shoal Line, there wasn’t much for tourists to do. Hernando Beach doesn’t even have a beach.
Bringing more traffic, noise and crime were unacceptable, residents argued, and the proposal was inappropriate.
Commissioners dropped the project and returned a $3 million grant to the state. The lodge, while approved by the county, was never built.
Since then, Hernando Beach residents have been regulars at county government meetings, fighting for and against business and land-use issues in their neighborhood. They wanted to stop a commercial fishing expansion and to replace their failing volunteer fire department. And they sued when Yann Milcendeau wanted to add two floors and a potentially rowdy rooftop deck to his Hernando Beach Hotel.
That’s why residents were alarmed last month to learn that some of their neighbors were working with Wolf and Micendeau on a new plan to put Hernando Beach on the tourism map.
The Hernando Beach vision plan was the subject of a community roundtable on Feb. 20, organized by residents Charles and Diane Greenwell. The couple had not yet arrived in the community when the tourism center was denied in 2014, but have since become deeply involved.
He ran unsuccessfully for the County Commission in 2018, and she was recently elected president of the Property Owners Association.
Even as the Greenwells were promoting attendance at the roundtable, the local Next Door social media site was burning up with debate about the vision plan.
Residents also had heard about a recent meeting of the county’s Tourist Development Council. Milcendeau, who sits on the council, said at the meeting that Hernando Beach was opening up more to tourism these days.
Tammy Heon, the county’s tourism manager, told him she thought there was a “hands-off” mindset about developing tourism in that community.
“Change is happening,” Milcendeau said, “and Hernando Beach is open to change.”
A poll set up two weeks ago on Next Door by Pillarella indicated otherwise. With more than 300 responses, 81 percent were against tourism development. And the poll prompted a flurry of written opinions.
“As an artist who likes to stay in this area, turning it into a tourist attraction would probably make me wealthy,” wrote Hernando Beach resident Steve Benevides. “But there’s a reason I don’t live in St. Petersburg, Clearwater or St. Augustine.
“I live here because it’s not a tourist area. If it turned into one I would move. I’d rather be a starving artist than deal with people, traffic, crime and trash.”
“The physical characteristics of this location don’t lend themselves to tourist development,” wrote Hernando Beach resident David Sarkis, citing “very sparse foot traffic, no public beachfront Gulf access, no public parking, small-capacity local businesses. Keeping these barriers to development in place and building upon those barriers can preserve this little gem.”
Sarkis said he has seen that work in other places.
“Change is not inevitable” he wrote. “This place is worth protecting, and we are the only ones who can do it.”
The vision plan presented at the roundtable proposes:
- Beautification, such as planting crepe myrtle trees along commercial portions of Shoal Line Boulevard.
- Traffic control, including reduced speeds, crosswalks and rumble strips on Shoal Line.
- Building a boardwalk behind local businesses, across to the Weekiwachee Preserve and down to Linda Pederson Park.
- Developing a major county park at the Hernando Beach water tower.
- Reducing setback requirements on commercial lots, so owners of the small parcels can maximize their property use.
For several months, the Greenwells had been meeting with local business leaders, including Milcendeau and Wolf. Both attended the roundtable, which drew about 90 residents.
Milcendeau explained to that audience why he supported the vision plan for Hernando Beach. Neighbors tore apart his motel expansion plans, he said, and it would help business owners to know the community’s expectations so they could avoid a similar reaction.
“It is all a draft plan subject to our community’s input,” Diane Greenwell wrote on Next Door, “but it is a starting point to improve the safety of our pedestrians and provide us more safe recreational walking and biking, scenic view opportunities of morning sunrises and sunsets, wildlife and preserving what we all love about Hernando Beach.”
Some residents at the roundtable said they loved the idea of a more walkable community. They suggested allowing golf carts on the streets of Hernando Beach and supported beautification efforts.
Others were against rumble strips or other traffic changes on Shoal Line or becoming a golf cart community. Creating a new park at the water tower was not universally supported. The county’s Linda Pederson Park is a mile up the road and rarely crowded, Pillarella said.
The Greenwells have said they hope the vision plan for Hernando Beach can become part of the county’s formal comprehensive plan for future growth. They met last week in Brooksville with Rogers and top county officials from the tourism, economic development, utilities, public works and planning departments. Milcendeau and Wolf were there, as well.
Diane Greenwell said the meeting went well, and she was pleased that “it is clear that we united the community.”
Charles Greenwell said that funding is possible from the county gas tax for traffic-related projects. Other options include seeking grants or a portion of the county’s proceeds from the BP oil spill settlement through the Restore Act, he said.
Rogers met with the Greenwells and business owners again last Friday in Hernando Beach to discuss funding options.
The county may be open to funding a traffic study, Rogers said. But beyond that, he suggested the group first work out a prioritized list of projects with the community.
Pillarella, who gathered the polling results showing the community’s anti-tourism sentiment, followed up with the county, too.
“Hernando Beach does need a vision for property owners,” she wrote in an email to county officials. ”The current plan that is being pushed down our throats is not in the best interest, nor does it have the approval, of the majority of property owners and residents.”
Diane Greenwell admitted to some “splinter groups” that are not in agreement.
“Everyone needs to work together,” she said, or the county is not going to help implement needed changes in Hernando Beach.