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Hollins asks to shape rules to his needs

A Times Editorial
Published April 16, 2006

The more than 1,500 acres that Dixie Hollins owns in far northwest Citrus County is unique, he says, as is the plan that his team has crafted for its future uses. For Citrus County, the question will be whether it is so unique that it deserves its own set of development rules.

Hollins has proposed a sweeping vision for the vast expanse along the north side of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, south of the Withlacoochee River and along the west side of U.S. 19.

To make his dream become reality, he will need the county to change the allowable uses for significant parts of his property. County staff has come out against the requests; the Planning Development and Review Board has looked over the plans and is expected to vote Thursday whether to recommend approval; and the County Commission ultimately will decide.

Hollins sees an industrial-port-marina center around an existing shipping dock and the creation of a commercial fishing area. His original plans called for a number of homes, but his representatives said last week that the residential component may be removed because of numerous concerns raised by county planning staff.

That leaves the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the limerock mining operation that has run at the site for decades, which Hollins expects to continue for 30 more years, at least.

Hollins has had an uneasy truce in recent years with many of his neighbors to the north who have complained bitterly about the impacts to their homes from the mine's blasting. As the machines have worked the southern edge of the 800-acre water-filled pit lately, the noise and jolts - along with the neighbors' complaints - have diminished.

But that could all change. Hollins is asking to mine the rock east and west of the big pit, areas not now zoned for mining, bringing the operation that much closer to his neighbors.

Hollins says the expansion is needed because there is valuable limerock to be taken. He has agreed to reduce the potential impact on the west side from 60 acres to 17, preserving valuable wetlands and beginning reclamation sooner than required.

His opponents, however, say the whole issue is about Hollins gaining access to this higher-grade rock and that Hollins' other grandiose plans are mere window-dressing for this grab.

Whether the hotel, restaurant and other businesses that Hollins hopes to attract to the proposed marina and port really can coexist with an open-pit mine that in some cases will be a mere 400 feet away remains to be seen. Homeowners a lot farther away than that say they have had problems for many years.

There also is the matter of a massive public boat ramp proposed for the barge canal west of U.S. 19 on the eastern edge of the site, if Hollins and the state can work out a trade.

Longtime manatee advocate Helen Spivey says that a 1996 court order in another case involving development along the barge canal prohibits the ramps because of their potential impact on a manatee birthing area farther east, along the Withlacoochee River. Hollins' team says the ruling is not applicable to their proposal and notes that the manatee protection element of the county's comprehensive plan calls for new ramps to be located on the canal.

No one knows for sure whether these new ramps, if built, will draw boaters away from the county's congested waterways or whether they will simply attract boaters from other counties.

The County Commission should insist on taking up this important issue separate from the rest of the project. The ramps should not become a bargaining chip in the overall decision on Hollins' proposal.

Much of what county staff objected to in the original proposal dealt with the residential portion, such as allowing homes within the Coastal High Hazard Area and within 5 miles of the Progress Energy nuclear plant. Taking the residential component off the table will certainly clarify the issues for the county.

For the PDRB and the County Commission, this is a classic case of rights in conflict. Hollins wants to use his already scarred property in ways that are in his and, arguably, the county's best economic interests, availing himself of the site's natural and man-made assets.

His neighbors just want to be left alone, to enjoy life without the jolts and rattles that come from blasts that one opponent has likened to B-52 bombing runs.

Even if nothing at all changes, Hollins legally can continue to mine the open pit for decades to come. This includes blasting and scraping the pit's northern reaches, the area closest to his neighbors.

He has offered to make concessions, from quieting the huge trucks hauling away the rock to building noise-reducing berms. His attorney also has noted that the county's 3,000-foot setback between mining and the homes has been superseded by state regulations, a point that the county has tentatively conceded.

Hollins should continue to work on this good-neighbor offensive, doing his best to reduce the impacts of his business. The residents, too, must be willing to work with Hollins. Not every homeowner in the area is opposed to the mining. Many people have moved to this remote part of the county fully aware of the mine and thus their complaints now are somewhat specious.

For the PDRB and the commissioners, however, the question is less about mining than it is about allowing specialized land uses for a project that would be inconsistent with the rules by which everyone else must abide.

The Hollins team says that the county's current land use regulations do not allow for a long-range vision such as being proposed. They argue that this site, and this proposal, merit special consideration.

County staff disagrees. So do we.

The staff report, admittedly focusing largely on concerns with the residential proposal, states that granting Hollins' request "would create a separate set of regulations specific to this site alone."

"If approved, it would set a precedent for developing custom land use regulations to suit a specific project that does not meet the requirements adopted by the county. Applications such as this could become a common practice to circumvent our coastal and environmental standards."

As for whether existing county regulations are insufficient, as Hollins asserts, staff states that "the comprehensive plan and the Land Development Code provide a mechanism to accomplish a long-range plan for this area."

If the county's land use regulations are demonstrably and legally deficient, and not simply inconvenient, for developers, then that is a separate issue for commissioners to consider. There are plenty of opportunities for tweaking the comprehensive plan.

But opening the door to special development rules for self-decribed "unique" properties would set a dangerous precedent.

The benefits to the property owner are obvious. The advantages for Citrus County are not so clear.

[Last modified April 16, 2006, 00:42:15]

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