The Hernando Board of County Commissioners is proposing to build a major recreational facility inside the confines of 11,206 acres purchased (using Florida Forever funds) to preserve the very significant environmental values of the property, now known as the Weeki Wachee Preserve. This is a letter to the County Administrator, Len Sossamon, suggesting otherwise and setting forth the reasons why.
June 16, 2014; 3:35 p.m.
I’m sorry we haven’t had the opportunity to chat about the Weeki Wachee Preserve but having read Friday’s paper about the hearing and what’s being proposed, I believe maybe it’s time to offer a few thoughts. I also appreciate the information about the project received from Ginger Singer.
I can understand why the Preserve might seem attractive as a location for a facility that Hernando County could use to foster the recovery of its long-hurting economy; spacious, open water and accessible, albeit a bit remote. But understand, the property has a history directly related to the state’s long and nationally recognized program to protect its unique natural systems from the inevitable impacts of Florida’s growing reputation as a global destination. Everyone wants sustained economic viability, people world-wide want to live here, and most folks already here want a real balance to be found between the loss of natural habitat that comes with all that “love” and the critical need to protect it. The growing realization, in any case, is that there is the very real possibility if we do not preserve a large part of what’s left of Florida’s natural habitat, we will exploit it and use it until it is destroyed, and the very reasons why Florida has become a global destination in the first place will be destroyed along with it. I’m reminded of the “Tragedy of the Commons” and the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts”, further defined by Wikipedia as, “the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable.”
Some of us who are recent arrivals to the state (and I am not referring to you personally) simply may not appreciate all the lessons learned from the past and the cost and sacrifice that previous and current residents have suffered to implement the state’s environmental protection programs that have been carefully evolved over the last 50 years. It has been a tough and continuous struggle to educate people and raise their appreciation for natural Florida and its importance to the State’s economic future. Not all land in its natural state, or property that hosts environmentally significant flora and/or fauna, for example, should be considered appropriate for a public facility just because it’s already owned by the public, it’s beautiful, and it’s environmentally bountiful. In Florida, public education is ephemeral. Our population is always moving on or dying and being replaced by newcomers. Thus, maintaining effective appreciation for hard lessons learned is difficult. It is an unfortunate reality about Florida that its demography is continuously renewing and changing while the importance of Florida’s environment to its economic future is not.
The 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve was purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1995 from W. L. Cobb Construction Company for $15.1 million. Six years later in 2001 while I was executive director at the district, the property surrounding Weeki Wachee Springs was purchased from the City of St. Petersburg. (For years, ownership of the Springs by St. Pete was a very sore bone of contention for the residents of Hernando County because the City had acquired it in the 1930’s as a potential water supply source.) The Springs parcel of about 400 acres was purchased for around $16 million as part of then-Governor Bush’s “Springs Initiative” using funds from the State’s Florida Forever program, if my memory serves accurately. Today, the acquisition remains an important component of the state’s strategy to acquire, restore, and protect Florida’s inventory of iconic springs, which are not duplicated in such concentration anywhere else in the world. Florida’s springs are part of its globally unique natural heritage much as the Grand Canyon is for Arizona.
The Preserve property was purchased as part of a regional system of conservation lands that extend up to Crystal River Buffer Preserve, including the southernmost coastal hardwood hammocks in western Florida. It provides a rich collage of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee River frontage, portions of Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sand hills. Part of why the acquisition was so important was also because it would help in preventing further degradation of the groundwater flowing to Weeki Wachee Springs and because the area and its habitat is well known for its black bear population.
With the planned new construction at the Preserve consisting of added restroom facilities at each of four new parking lots with spaces for 400 cars, and an expected usage rate of over a thousand people per day (based upon 1,240 people in the swimming area per day on average and 528 people on average using the beach/sand area), the project plan, in my opinion, appears, without substantial revision, to be inconsistent with the original purposes for acquiring the property and designating it a Preserve. If the project is ultimately approved as planned, it would also imply that all the concerns expressed in the media by the public and legislature recently over restoring and protecting Florida’s springs is somehow invalid. As you are aware, there is a growing body of empirical evidence that strongly suggests otherwise.
While I was at the district, we understood the responsibility and necessity to allow public enjoyment of these unique properties for what they are, without allowing the land to be over utilized and thus changed from the very purposes for which they were purchased. So, a careful plan for public access and use was developed for every property including the Weeki Wachee Preserve. Therefore, I believe it is not public use, per se, that is causing the growing objections to the county’s conceptual proposal. It is the concentration and intensity of the proposed use. The main access road from Osowaw Boulevard, for example, is smack dab through the heart of the corridor black bears need for their normal foraging, ranging and maintenance of the specie. Consequently, while the road may be marginally acceptable for maintenance purposes, it would not be acceptable as a main entrance with the anticipated heavy daily usage.
I believe there may be ways for some degree of increased usage to be allowed in the lake area, but the fact remains it was purchased and established as a Preserve for very specific reasons, reasons that are more critical today than they ever were. SWFWMD clearly has an obligation to insure that any proposed public uses fall within the constraints contained in the original state authorization to purchase the property using Florida Forever funds. This proposal, as I understand it, may very well exceed those constraints. It needs to be confirmed one way or the other.
You may know that SWFWMD has partnered on several occasions with Hernando County to allow its residents access and use of district-owned public lands within the county such as Bayport Park and Weeki Wachee Springs StatePark. It also instigated and funded through the now dismantled Coastal Rivers Basin Board of the District the location and construction of an Environmental Education Center on park land just west of the Weeki WacheeSprings on Bayport Road. Points being, two environmental educational centers seem excessive for the actual use that can be expected so why not focus on the one that already exists, and, the District is always interested in working with local partners in a manner that is consistent with its statutory responsibilities.
Finally, Len, it appears that the education and tourism aspects of the project are in name only. From what I can tell (and my understanding of the project is admittedly limited), it will actually be just a very large recreational complex intended to bring such attendance to the venue that, in turn, jobs and economic development will be fostered on the western end of the county (which is not certain), and the reason it’s being proposed in the Preserve is because state funding is available, the land is cheap, i.e. free (if SWFWMD agrees) and it has water features. These are not reasons enough in my opinion to forsake the original important purposes for which the land was acquired on behalf of Florida’s greater public, Florida’s natural environment and Florida’s long-term economic future.
Consequently, I recommend the county seek to locate the project elsewhere or use the money to fund true economic development by making the funds available perhaps as seed money to develop and support new private business enterprises. In that area on the coast, such enterprises might consist, for example, of aquaculture or some other coastal-oriented activity appropriate for private land uses and privately sponsored economic development.
I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts.