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Guest Column

Hickory Hill will be a boon to area

By Sebring Sierra
Published February 2, 2007


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I am writing to address the Jan. 16 guest column by Sindra Ridge, "Spin on Hickory Hill leaves out a few things." Following are a few topics I felt were necessary to correct or clarify.

Quality job growth

The guest column claims Hickory Hill, a proposed golf course community in Spring Lake, will not "provide quality job growth." We have never promised to single-handedly revolutionize the economy of Hernando County. Time and again our properties and others demonstrate that a high-end, high-quality project like Hickory Hill results in the direct and indirect creation of new jobs. As important, high-quality, master-planned communities provide above-average wages. A survey of the few comparable communities in the region would reveal the number of above-average-paying permanent jobs far exceeds conservative projections referenced in the guest column. Quality housing developments and local job quality improvement go hand in hand.

Open space protection

Of the entire 1,110 acres of open space, our plans call for only 29 percent of this area to be maintained golf grass. The remaining 790 acres of open space will be natural vegetation and wetlands, or native planted vegetation that is Florida-friendly landscaping, which is drought-tolerant and conserves water. The approximate breakdown of the total open space acreage:

- Natural buffer areas and wildlife habitat conservation areas, 370 acres.

- Natural and native areas, 420 acres.

- Maintained portions of the golf course, 320 acres.

Also questioned in the column were our extensive efforts to protect open space. The current Hickory Hill plan provides more than 1,110 acres of natural vegetation and green space. A key aspect of this significant open space acreage preservation is the guarantee for large wildlife corridors strategically placed throughout the property. Please note that without any change to the comprehensive plan, it is now allowable to divide this property into hundreds of 10-acre and 5-acre tracts, complete with miles of fencing with no protected wildlife corridors or interconnected green space. Our proposal for Hickory Hill better protects wildlife than existing allowable standards.

Water quality protection

The guest column stated that "The Southwest Florida Water Management District ... (has) determined .... that groundwater contamination most likely will occur." We are unaware of any official Swiftmud determination of the above assertion. For the past 18 months we have worked closely with Swiftmud and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and do not believe this allegation is factual.

The fact is that we proactively agreed to have a certified hydrogeologist perform 59 on-site soil borings and survey more than 10,000 feet of ground-penetrating radar on the Hickory Hill site. This site-specific research has been reviewed by Peter Hubbell, who is the former executive director of Swiftmud, and his conclusion states:

"The geology of this location protects groundwater from contamination. Even so, Hickory Hill will minimize pollution with very specific policies that are already proposed. Water quality protection is accomplished by having Audubon International Signature Program-approved golf course designs, Integrated Pest Management Plans, a Florida Friendly Yards and Neighborhoods Program instituted, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection Groundwater Monitoring Plan to extend beyond buildout, lined reservoirs for the storage of reclaimed water, and other best management practices to maintain water quality. These commitments are above and beyond any requirement by any approving agency."

Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council

The 31-page report produced by the WRPC provided a positive review of Hickory Hill, saying, among other things, "The land management proposals are commendable and the development team has informally proposed site planning at a level much more respectful than other developments." However, the guest column took two lines out of a 31-page report to try to spin Hickory Hill in a negative light.

Most important, after reviewing the entire WRPC report, the multi-county represented WRPC board voted positively to approve the report on Hickory Hill and thus provide Hernando County a framework to finalize its review.

Urban sprawl

Urban sprawl is a commonly misused term improperly equated with large-scale development. The state of Florida in Rule 9J-5.006(5)(g) identifies 13 "primary indicators of urban sprawl." Upon its initial review, the Florida Department of Community Affairs determined that Hickory Hill does not represent urban sprawl in eight of the 13 categories. In other words, the state authority on urban sprawl determined that potentially only five of the 13 indicators of urban sprawl might apply to Hickory Hill. The department advised that a detailed urban sprawl analysis should be included in its final review package that addresses the applicability of just the five remaining urban sprawl indicators. This detailed urban sprawl analysis has been completed by Charles Gauthier, AICP and former chief of the department's Bureau of Local Planning, who concluded that "Hickory Hill does not trigger the primary indicators of urban sprawl."

The Interstate 75/State Road 50 Planned Development District is an established and intense land use for Hernando County. It is critical to proactively plan Hickory Hill now so that it can serve as a transition and buffer area between the intense land use directly to the east of the property and Spring Lake. We feel strongly that failing to proactively plan for the imminent development in this area is shortsighted.

Transportation

Non-congested roadways are important to all community stakeholders, including Sierra Properties. For the past two years we have worked diligently with many transportation authorities, including the Hernando County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the state Department of Transportation. Six detailed transportation studies have been reviewed to ensure Hickory Hill will mitigate for all of its roadway impacts. Additionally, the project was proactively and innovatively planned to provide access onto major collector roads. The current Hickory Hill plan purposely does not allow direct access to local or rural roads so that local traffic congestion on those roads would be minimized. This is good planning and shows respect for our neighbors.

The guest column stated "Hickory Hill will cause service levels on area roads to fail at a more rapid rate than if it were not built." This is simply not true. If Hickory Hill is not built, some form of development will occur on the subject property. If development were to proceed as is allowed under the current Comprehensive Growth Management Plan, there would be no additional access restrictions. This lack of access restrictions likely would result in many individual driveways, which would access all adjacent local roads, thereby increasing traffic on these rural roads.

The fact is, according to applicable rules and laws, that Hickory Hill must maintain or improve all level of service standards.

Market/compatibility

There have literally been hundreds of modifications to the Hickory Hill plan since its submittal in early 2005. Some of the most recognized changes:

- Inclusion of innovative density and buffering zones.

- Enhancement in all environmental protection measures.

- Significant commitment to open space.

- Financial commitments above and beyond county requirements to school, fire and transportation needs.

- Commitment to set a benchmark for protecting water quality and quantity in the county.

The Hickory Hill community continues to be refined, incorporating relevant information, to ensure a quality development for Hernando County that connects and enhances the community.

Also related to compatibility, the current Hickory Hill plan provides both a 200-foot buffer around the perimeter fronting the Spring Lake side of the project, as well as "step-down" density zones in order to maximize compatibilities between adjacent land uses, including the I-75/SR 50 PDD and Spring Lake. The 200-foot buffer around Hickory Hill is 100 percent larger than the buffer required around active mines in Hernando County, and also is larger than any other buffer we are able to find in Hernando County.

Population growth

The guest column had one thing absolutely right: "Yes, growth is here and more is coming." According to official Florida population surveys produced by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, as well as Hernando County's own population growth assumptions, about 130,000 new residents will move to Hernando County during the next 20 years. This will create a need for approximately 65,000 new homes. Hickory Hill will provide for roughly 3 percent of this needed housing supply. Also, Hickory Hill provides a rare opportunity to master plan a large parcel of property in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. Hickory Hill will provide a unique product that is in high demand and very low supply.

The key to effective planning is to think ahead, always looking to the demands of the future. As the first line in the Growth Policy section of Florida Statutes (Chapter 163.3191) reads, "The planning program shall be a continuous and ongoing process." To sit back and wait until growth arrives is not good policy. Now is the time to provide the certainty of a high-quality and low-density land use for the Hickory Hill parcel.

We appreciate the opportunity for continued open communication with all community stakeholders. It is our promise to continue to work diligently to provide accurate and independently verifiable information in a timely manner.

Sebring Sierra is vice president of operations for Sierra Properties. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

[Last modified February 2, 2007, 07:19:51]


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