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Commission approves zoning for affordable housing

The County Commission breaks an impasse over the Nantucket Cove development now that a new commissioner joins the board.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published March 31, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - With former sheriff Tom Mylander sworn in as a county commissioner Tuesday morning, the board was finally able to decide whether to rezone land on U.S. 19 for an affordable housing development.

The commission voted to approve the rezoning 3-2.

Mylander's yes vote broke an impasse that had surrounded the Nantucket Cove Apartment project in recent weeks, when the absence of late commission Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse led the board to deadlock on the issue.

Mylander joined newly appointed Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson and Commissioner Mary Aiken in approving the change from commercial to residential zoning, which was sought by Maitland-based developer Sandspur Housing Partner Ltd. As they had in a past vote, commissioners Robert Schenck and Diane Rowden opposed the zoning change.

"I think the board made the right decision," Sandspur executive vice president Scott Culp said after the vote. "They recognized that we did all we could to mitigate community concerns and that the project is going to benefit Hernando County."

Nantucket Cove is to be located on 17 acres on the west side of U.S. 19 between Suzanne Drive and Caribbean Drive. Rents for the 128 units will depend on income level, with the neediest paying $486 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and those with more money paying up to $904 a month for a four-bedroom.

Affordable housing developers like Sandspur have their costs subsidized by state funds and then pass on their savings to tenants in the form of lower rents. Unlike public housing, which is meant to aid the poorest of the poor, affordable housing developers specialize in what is sometimes called "workforce" housing.

It is seen as a viable alternative for the elderly and the working poor, those who have jobs but do not earn enough money to adequately support themselves or their families.

A study released last week found that there is a need for such housing in Hernando and that demand is expected to grow. County Housing Authority director Donald Singer told board members Tuesday that with Nantucket Cove and other affordable housing projects now being considered, the need in the Spring Hill area can be met for the next decade.

That was the perceived benefit of Sandspur's project, which still must secure state financial backing to move forward. Strong opposition to the rezoning, however, came from two quarters: environmentalists concerned about a resident black bear population and the county's own planners.

Planning Department officials recommended the board deny the rezoning because the county's comprehensive plan advises against high density development in coastal areas prone to devastation during hurricanes.

Worry over how increasing the area's population might complicate evacuations during a storm was apparently alleviated for some board members by promises from Sandspur. The developer agreed to fortify a community center at one of its existing projects farther north and west on U.S. 19 so that it could accommodate Nantucket Cove evacuees.

It also pledged $12,800 that the county can use to renovate existing shelter space. The move prompted a rebuke from Anna Liisa Covell, a Republican County Commission candidate in District 5.

"For $12,800 they are going to be able to buy the zoning," Covell said, "ignore the comprehensive plan and ignore the coastal hazard."

Several audience members spoke on behalf of the dwindling black bear population in the area and quoted from a letter University of Florida researcher Tom Hoctor sent commissioners on March 23.

The letter reads, in part: "The property in question is documented to be part of a core area that harbors most of the known female bears in this population. These females are essential to the future of this population, and any activity that reduces the available habitat or degrades the remaining habitat will put their future in question."

Sandspur vice president Culp did not dispute Hoctor's assertions, but merely pointed out that the land in question is currently zoned for commercial use, which is considered a more disruptive type of development than the residential use he sought.

In the end, Culp's arguments won the day and the board agreed to give Sandspur a $200,000 loan at 3 percent interest over 32 years. The money comes from the state but the county has the authority to use it to address community housing needs as it sees fit.

The loan will make the Nantucket Cove project more attractive to Florida Housing Finance Corp. officials who must decide whether it should be subsidized. That decision will be made in the fall.

With state backing, Nantucket Cove could be completed in 2005.

- Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 31, 2004, 01:35:39]


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