Hickory Hill developer takes its cause to the community

Published February 26, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - When Tampa developer Sierra Properties LLC first announced plans to the build the 2,800-acre Hickory Hill subdivision, Mark MacKinlay said he was "really and truly sick" about the idea.

But an early meeting with the developer persuaded him to wait before judging the project, said MacKinlay, who lives on 10 acres in the middle of the proposed development in Spring Lake.

But what really left an impression, he said, was a visit from Sierra chairman Bob Sierra at MacKinlay's house on Shirley Drive.

By the time Sierra left two hours later, MacKinlay and his wife, Becky, were convinced that the development was the best use of the land, said MacKinlay, now a leading advocate for the project, which would include 1,749 houses and three golf courses.

"Until that time, we had not made up our mind," said MacKinlay, a retired Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant.

"That visit was what swayed us across. It was extremely crucial."

Spreading the word

It is also an example of how Sierra Properties, more than any developer in memory, has taken its case to the community - mailing out thousands of glossy brochures, hiring a Tampa public relations firm, maintaining a Web site, catering meals and holding so many meetings with residents and business leaders that Sierra vice president of operations Sebring Sierra has lost count.

Though opponents of the project dismiss this campaign as "propaganda" and supporters praise it as "education," most of them agree it makes good business sense.

Sierra has recognized that county commissioners often base their votes on public opinion, said Gary Schraut, a Brooksville developer and real estate broker; and when the commission faces a chamber full of potential voters complaining about a project, they usually turn it down.

"Sometimes, because of the atmosphere created by the crowd, the board doesn't even go along with the recommendations of its own planning department," Schraut said.

"Everybody's afraid to say it, but it's true."

Bob Sierra and Robert Thomas, whose family has owned the land since the 1930s, seemed determined to control how their project was viewed from the time they first proposed it in the spring of 2004.

After inviting neighbors of Hickory Hill to the Best Western motel in Ridge Manor West, they explained Sierra's background as a developer of high-end subdivisions, including Avila in Lutz, and promised that Hickory Hill would be similar. At a separate meeting for residents of Shirley Drive, they said they might eventually be interested in buying their land.

About year ago, Sierra Properties sent out a mass mailing to homes across eastern Hernando - pamphlets that featured pictures of the ranch in its undeveloped state and emphasized the amount of tax revenue the project would generate.

Sierra Properties has also mailed cards to business promoting Hickory Hill's economic benefits. It hired a lobbyist, Tom Barnette, to spread the word of the project in the community and, last summer, public relations consultant Honey Rand.

The company has previously held one meeting for business leaders at Silverthorn Country Club and will hold another at the club March 8 for members of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

More visibly, the company has pressed its point of view in local newspapers. Sebring Sierra and Sonny Vergara - a Spring Lake resident, former executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and longtime friend of Sierra attorney Jake Varn - have written guest columns in the Hernando Times advocating the development.

Since Jan. 1, the Times has run a dozen letters supporting the project, roughly matching the number of anti-Hickory Hill letters. The public dialogue seems likely to grow even more intense as April 26, the date of the commission's decisive hearing on the project, draws closer.

Rick Carlton, director of financial planning for Hernando Healthcare, said representatives from Sierra encouraged him and his father-in-law, Gary Morton, a government teacher at Central High School, to write pro-Hickory Hill letters.

"It wasn't the (development's) owners but people who are affiliated with it and who want it to happen," Carlton said.

Maurice Ryman, owner of Complete Technology Solutions, a computer consultant firm, also said he has talked with Sebring Sierra and other proponents of the project. He wrote a letter in favor of the project and encouraged three of his employees to do the same.

One opponent of the subdivision, Shirley Robinson, said she felt the company was trying to silence her voice.

After her letter to the Times appeared in December, a lawyer for the developer sent her a certified letter advising her to "make only truthful statements" about Hickory Hill.

"I interpreted it as intimidating," she said.

Opposition exists

Along with a large turnout of supporters at commission meetings, these letters have created the impression of strong support. But maybe it's only that, said Sindra Ridge, a Spring Lake resident and the leader of the opposition to the project.

Many businesses or families, including the MacKinlays, have sent out more than one letter under the name of different individuals, making it seem as though the backing for the project is more widespread than it actually is.

More importantly, she said, the supporters "have something they are going to gain."

"There has to be a profit margin," she said. "John Q. Public, the average homeowners, they are opposed to it."

There's nothing wrong with business leaders favoring the project, said Sebring Sierra, if it indicates it will improve the business climate in Hernando.

"I think it's going to help the overall economy," he said. "We've got supporters across the county."

Carlton, for example, said Hickory Hill will not only bring in more potential hospital patients, but ones who are insured or able to pay their bills. Having more clients, he said, could allow the hospital to provide services - a hyperbaric chamber that helps wounds heal more quickly, for example - that it could not afford with a smaller customer base.

Ryman also sees the prospect of more customers for his company, citing Bob Sierra's claim - disputed by a prominent economic development expert - that Hickory Hill residents will move their enterprises to Hernando County.

"I started following it and doing some of my own research," Ryman said. "I saw it would be a good thing for the county."

In some cases the benefits could be more direct.

Cash for houses

Soon after the project was announced, Hickory Hill identified Mike Hensley, chief deputy of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, as a resident who favored the project. But last year he sold his house on Shirley Drive to the Hickory Hill developers for $325,000 and moved to Inverness.

The 2.5 acres of land and 1,800-square-foot house, built in 1982, is valued at $124,000 by the Hernando County Property Appraiser's office. But Hensley said he sold it near the height of the housing boom, at a price based on a private appraisal.

"I got very close to my appraisal price," he said. "I did not get a sweetheart deal."

MacKinlay acknowledges he may also sell his house to the developer. Bob Sierra "said that if we decided to sell at a later date, he would like the right of first refusal, and that's the way it stands," he said.

But that's why he or most other neighbors favor the project. And it is most of the other neighbors, he said, citing as proof the results of the 2006 election. Former County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who had backed the project, beat eventual winner Rose Rocco in most precincts in eastern Hernando including Spring Lake, where she won 658 to 533.

"Sindra says the people of Spring Lake don't want this, and that's one of the things that really irritates me," MacKinlay said.

He and other supporters said, almost universally, that they would like to see the land remain as woods and pasture. But they respect the Thomas family's right to develop it and think this will happen inevitably. If so, they would rather have the project in the hands of a responsible, high-end developer such as Sierra.

In its marketing campaign, they say, the company has done nothing more than present what many of them called facts.

"He has never told me anything that hasn't been right on the mark," Hensley said of Brent Whitley, the company's vice president of land development, who lives in Spring Lake.

Opponents, however, say the campaign has consistently misstated the facts. It has understated the project's potential environmental damage, they say, and offered a skewed interpretation of the comprehensive plan which they say clearly forbids the project.

"If this is such a great thing for the county, it would be self-evident," said Joe Murphy, an environmental activist from Ridge Manor. "They wouldn't have to spend so much time and money convincing people of that fact."