Hickory Hill: Growth nightmare

Published April 23, 2007

Hernando County is the gateway to the Nature Coast. We have significant natural areas, open space, beautiful rivers, and a quality of life not found in the more congested areas to our south. As Tampa continues to grow northward into and through Pasco County, Hernando County faces ever-increasing growth pressures. This impacts our community in terms of quality of life, property taxes, loss of open space, water quality and quantity, and crowding on our roads and in our schools.

We already see the growth, and the consequences of growth, that has occurred in west and central Hernando County. Now development is rapidly moving into eastern and northern Hernando County.

The Hernando Audubon Society Conservation Committee and Executive Board strongly urges the Hernando County Commission to deny the request to amend our county's comprehensive plan to allow the Hickory Hill development in the Spring Lake community. We believe it would set a dangerous precedent and undermine good growth management and planning in eastern and northern Hernando County.

Spring Lake is considered rural in our county's comprehensive plan and is defined as "a pre-existing rural community." Generally speaking, the density of development is limited in the county's rural areas in our comprehensive plan. Growth is not prohibited, but it must be integrated respectfully into existing communities. Growth and new development must be consistent and compatible with our county's comprehensive plan.

Good, planned growth respects the rights of existing taxpayers and residents, and works into the plan or vision that a county has for itself, as expressed through its comprehensive plan. Good planning relies on a comprehensive plan that has been developed by the community and is fair in its enforcement and enactment. One set of rules for all, fairly and equitably enforced, to protect and maintain the health, quality, and welfare of all county residents, taxpayers and voters.

The interests proposing Hickory Hill are seeking a density of homes far greater than the county's current comprehensive plan would allow for Spring Lake. The comprehensive plan, depending on site plans and negotiations with the county, and assuming one home per 10 acres, would allow at least 300 homes on the Thomas property. Hickory Hill's proposal is for 1,750 homes, on average a full 1,450 more homes than the community has said is appropriate for the Spring Lake region through the comprehensive plan. In total, the developers of Hickory Hill are requesting to change our county's comprehensive plan to allow them to develop 1,750 homes, 50,000 square feet of retail/commercial space, and 63 holes of golf over three golf courses

Again, good, planned growth respects the rights of existing taxpayers and residents, and works into the plan or vision that a county has for itself. This is not the case with Hickory Hill. The people who live and pay taxes in eastern Hernando County, and folks who bought their homes in eastern Hernando County to live in a designated rural area, deserve better. Every taxpayer, voter and resident of Hernando County deserves better.

Hickory Hill is an important test for our County Commission in terms of growth management. Either we have a strong, working comprehensive plan, or we do not. This decision will impact every taxpayer in the county. We can get it right and deny the Hickory Hill comp plan amendment, or we can mire ourselves in a growth nightmare in eastern and northern Hernando County.

How will the county say no to future requests for comp plan amendments, new or expanded planned development districts, or expanded density in other areas in eastern or northern Hernando County, once this precedent is set?

Florida offers its residents a real time machine. To see the future of Hernando County if we falter in our attempts to manage growth, all you have to do is drive south and take a good look around. That will be us before you know it and the developers will have moved on to Levy County with the same promises as we wonder "What happened?"

Joe Murphy is conservation chair of the Hernando Audubon Society.