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Public incivility was topped only by ignorance

By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

I have only regretted moving to Hernando County a few times. Among them:

When residents defeated a referendum to fund a new (and still desperately needed) library in Spring Hill.

When a group of religious bigots brow-beat the School Board into excluding gays from the list of people who should not be openly discriminated against.

And every time the Ku Klux Klan has slithered into Brooksville to spew its vulgar hatred.

The list is not very long, considering I've had a bird's-eye view of just about every significant happening here for the past 12 years.

Alas, it's time to add another event to my self-described Hall of Shame.

Thursday night's County Commission meeting at the Springstead Theatre in Spring Hill.

There, I saw more than 800 people demonstrate an absolutely stunning level of ignorance about the most basic functions of their government. And when they weren't showing their lack of knowledge, they displayed a chilling level of intolerance about their neighbors.

Before I continue, I am obliged to say that not everyone at that meeting was uninformed and rude. Some listened attentively and asked sensible questions, trying to do what they could to sift through the misinformation and misconceptions that are consuming the debate. But attendees of the well-behaved variety were definitely in the minority. For at least the first two hours of the six-hour gathering, and before commission chairwoman Nancy Robinson threatened to adjourn if people didn't mind their manners, it was mob rule.

Unless you've been out of town or watching way too much television, you're probably aware there are several proposals to build apartment complexes near the existing housing developments of Seven Hills, Silverthorn and Regency Oaks. Many residents in those neighborhoods strongly oppose the plans because, they speculate, it will lower their property values and increase crime.

The reason they believe that is because the apartments have been designated "affordable housing." That means the government is giving the developers financial incentives to build them and then set aside a certain amount of the units for tenants who earn less than $27,000, which the federal government says is 60 percent of the median income of $45,000 for this area.

You don't have to be a fed to know there is a need for such housing. Run a couple of errands and you'll get a preview of the folks who'll be living there. Clerks, cops, cashiers, construction workers, teachers, landscapers. And the bulk of the renters are expected to be senior citizens and retirees trying to get by on limited incomes.

But it appears most of the people who live in these developments, especially Seven Hills and Silverthorn residents, have jumped to the conclusion that if your income is low or limited, you are undesirable.

No other issue has drawn such intense protest in recent memory, and that's one of the reasons county commissioners decided to sponsor Thursday's workshop. They wanted an opportunity to have their staff explain the processes of zoning and permitting, and the county's legal obligations and limitations.

The intent was to give factual information to folks so they could understand that things like this are not done willy-nilly, and that there are well-documented plans to manage growth. In those is the designation of multifamily housing near single-family developments and shopping centers and schools.

County officials hoped, given that information, reasonable people would accept it, or at least disagree reasonably with decisions that were made 15 years ago and have been a secret only to those who have not bothered to pay attention.

Instead, what they got was a hostile crowd that, operating out of fear of the unknown, sought to instill fear in the commissioners and their staff. Toward that end, the crowd wasn't just bad-mannered, it was bellicose and bullying. They demeaned total strangers who were just doing their jobs, and fed off one another's anger and hate.

I moved around to different areas of the auditorium to get a better feel for what was going on. It was the same in all three places I sat. Not just cat-calls and boos directed at the speakers, but private conversations punctuated by curses and threats.

A red-faced, tattooed guy two rows in front of me turned around and said, to no one in particular and in an accent that I will describe only as not from here, "I put up with these f------ projects back home. I ain't doing it here."

A guy a few seats to his left chimed in "These f------ don't know what they're doing. To h--- with 'em!"

On the other side of the room a middle-aged woman within earshot clapped loudly and encouraged others around her to do the same every time a speaker stated a fact with which she disagreed or could not comprehend. "Bulls---!" "Double-talk!" she yelled as the county attorney attempted to explain an essential element of the U.S. Constitution pertaining to property rights. A younger man who may have been her son stood beside her and pumped his fist in the air. "Yeah!"

One woman took that cue to pick up her baby and leave. A man who observed this urged the fist-pumping guy to "Calm down." The young guy defended his outburst. "This ain't no place for lightweights."

In another corner sat a quiet cluster of younger women, most in hospital scrubs, who kept cutting disapproving eyes toward the rowdies. I thought they might declare their support for the apartments. But they didn't dare speak up, and I don't blame them. At best, they would have been shouted down; at worst, they could have been assaulted. Emotions were that high, and civility was that low.

I live not far from one of the proposed apartment complexes, so I have a personal, not just a professional, interest in this issue.

It's time for others in or near these developments -- the silent majority with views that are more moderate, practical and tolerant -- to speak up. If we don't, the narrow-minded, hypocritical loud-mouths will speak for us.

Which do you want as your neighbor?

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