St. Petersburg Times Online
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

County's population blooming

Residents say they are drawn to the area's beauty. And more people means more businesses, officials say.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

Residents say they are drawn to the area's beauty. And more people means more businesses, officials say.

SPRING HILL -- For Tom and Sandy Loechler, love was born four years ago with a simple visit to the home of some friends in Timber Pines.

The Loechlers stayed there after checking out potential future home sites in Fort Myers.

"They told us to stay here, and we did, and we fell in love with the place," Tom Loechler said.

Before long, they followed six other couples from northern Minnesota to Timber Pines and bought a home last year in the retirement community off U.S. 19.

"Not only do we have six couples that we see regularly, but we have three couples renting here because of us," Loechler said Friday as he swept storm debris from his driveway. "Now all three of them are looking to buy. It's very infectious."

It's an infection that took hold and spread wildly during the past decade.

Timber Pines is part of the fastest-growing area of Hernando County during the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which released 2000 population figures for Florida last week.

Overall, the county grew 29.4 percent, from 101,115 people in 1990 to 130,802 in 2000. The census tract that includes Timber Pines and the surrounding area grew by a whopping 94.7 percent, from 3,169 residents in 1990 to 6,171 in 2000.

Loechler says he and his friends were drawn to the beauty of the developments, including heavy landscaping with pine and oak trees, golf courses, swimming pools, as well as the great price. His two-bedroom, two-bathroom home cost $95,000.

Unlike Brooksville officials, who say they were caught off guard by the loss of residents in the city and surrounding area, county planners say they knew all along that Timber Pines had accounted for some of the biggest growth in Hernando during the 1990s.

The close predictions about the amount of overall growth and its locations give them confidence in plotting future development, the planners say.

The county's predicted population as of April 1, 2000, provided by the state, was only off from the census figure by 200 residents. Before the release of the numbers last week, officials called Timber Pines one of the heaviest areas of expansion.

The other four fastest-growing places in Hernando also were on the west side of the county, including Seven Hills, Pristine Place, Silverthorn, Royal Highlands and surrounding areas. All posted gains of more than 50 percent during the past 10 years.

Although those other areas have some room to grow during the next 10 years, Timber Pines is at capacity.

"For all practical purposes, it's complete," said County Planning Department Director Larry Jennings.

As for the growth that's already taken place, Jennings said the county was well-prepared for it.

"What it says is that the area where the county has planned and programmed the most growth, that's where we have invested in the past," he said. "That's where the development of the majority of infrastructure has been."

That infrastructure has included road-widening projects on Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard, he said, as well as the opening of the subregional wastewater treatment plant at the Hernando County Airport and the expansion of the water system in western Hernando.

Other areas that are starting to thrive, such as the Royal Highlands, are taking care of local roads through special assessment districts, though the provision of water and sewer lines to the area could be a long-term consideration for the county.

Royal Highlands, much of which is in the the fourth-fastest-growing census tract in the county, grew 64.2 percent, from 2,990 residents in 1990 to 4,911 residents in 2000.

So far, the money for improving roads there is being handled by developers and residents themselves.

"There has been a gradual increase through municipal service benefit units because most are local streets and not something the county would be improving of its own volition," Jennings said.

Planning also helped the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District prepare for the surge of new residents.

"The way we are currently configured, we can adequately serve the people in Spring Hill with an additional 25 percent growth before we even have to start looking at the possibility of another (fire) station," said Assistant Chief J.J. Morrison.

"Right now, unfortunately, that means we are busy, but we have the infrastructure in place to accommodate it," he said. "Over the history of the department, we started with only one station, but when we built up to four stations, it gave us a good coverage pattern for all of Spring Hill. . . . We built for the community, and now the community is filling in."

Although the census numbers did not surprise many local officials, the closeness of the estimates to the real numbers gives officials confidence as they project into the future, said County Administrator Paul McIntosh. Beyond estimates, the official numbers also will help the county qualify for more federal and state money, he said.

"At the federal and state level, they rely on the census as the Holy Grail on the distribution of funds," McIntosh said. "To the extent that we have firm numbers from which to deal with, they will enable us to pursue different types of grants. . . . It's more difficult to demonstrate you are growing out of a category with just estimates."

In the future, the county will have to make more predictions when deciding where to put water and sewer lines.

"The population figures and projections used in the facilities master plan are based on estimates on population growth in the last 10 to 15 years. In a sense, the census has confirmed those and gives us confidence to project into the future and determine where the needs will be," McIntosh said.

The official numbers also will catch the attention of additional restaurant and store chains that haven't already made their way up U.S. 19, as Sears, Outback Steakhouse and others have done, he said.

"The nationwide franchise developers look at the figures, so Hernando County again starts popping up on radar screens for commercial development," he said.

* * *

Our communities

Here are the 2000 and 1990 population numbers reported by the U.S. Census Bureau for "census designated places" in Hernando County. Since Brooksville and Weeki Wachee are the only incorporated cities in the county, other boundaries are generally accepted estimates of the territory the communities encompass. People are not counted more than once. Thus, for example, Timber Pines residents are not included in the total for Spring Hill. Some of the places were newly designated for the 2000 census, and the boundaries on others changed.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.