You can have a 572-acre rock mine across the street from a major hospital, but you can’t create art on a tree farm in Hernando County
May 10, 2022
Recently, the Hernando County Commission met to hear some folks complain about a neighbor whose lawyer said was operating an ugly, unsightly, smelly, dusty, noisy, industrial manufacturing plant in a rural/agricultural area which should not be allowed in Hernando County.
They put up slides showing tall steel structures that could be seen above the 6-foot privacy fence erected by the next-door property owner as well as a cloud of "dust" caused by what they claimed was from sandblasting.
Friends of the complaining neighbor swore under oath that they, too, could see the structure and hear the noises of the offensive goings on. They said the conditions were so bad they could no longer sit on their porches or look out their kitchen windows and not be offended by the activities of the new neighbor.
If you did not know the truth behind all this, you might agree it’s just awful that sights and sounds of such things should not be allowed to encroach upon a neighbor’s right to the quiet and bucolic views of country living in our Hernando County.
But, oh how reality and truth can get tossed aside in the contorted legalese of lawyers arguing before a lay board who are not lawyers, who have not studied the laws they are elected to apply, and who are sometimes driven more by election politics than the execution of fairness and right. Truth can get overlooked and even avoided in such hearings and right can suffer. And this is what so egregiously happened at that hearing.
The allegedly offending neighbors are one, John Henry, who just happens to be one of the most highly revered living sculptors in the world, and his wife Pamela. This is a man and wife team who have been recognized by the international art community their entire lives and somehow decided Hernando County is where, at least for the moment, they want to spend the rest of their lives. We all, it would seem for many obvious reasons, should be so very fortunate to have them reside here and become members of our county community.
So, what, really, were the Henrys doing that was so egregiously unacceptable that the Commissioners decided to ban activities on their 30-plus acres after the next year ending May 31, 2023, to such an extent that Mr. Henry will be prevented from continuing to create on their own property the magnificent art sculptures for which he is known around the world? What could be so unacceptable that it was suggested he create his art in another county?
When the Henrys moved here, the property was an ongoing farming operation where palm trees were grown and sold. The property is also located on a major highway and within a mile, as a crow flies, of one of the busiest north/south interstate thoroughfares in Florida. Some of these trees are tall and can only be excavated and loaded on flatbed semi-tractor trailer trucks using large cranes, an activity that was happening before the Henrys but apparently never bothered any of the now-complaining neighbors in the past.
Mr. Henry's getting older. Born in 1943 he is approaching 80 years. He is known for his bold and towering steel and aluminum structures that museums, galleries and private collectors have purchased and displayed throughout the world. To make these structures, welding, grinding, and painting is required, and some are just too large to assemble in an enclosed building. He is in the process of finishing two of these structures. After completion, they will be disassembled and shipped to their buyer or display location.
The point here is that what he does on the property is not smelly, dirty, or offensive. It does not entail dozens of workers laboring through long shifts to manufacture thousands of widgets, day in and day out, which are then shipped in trucks daily going in and out from a dark smoking plant, as was so disingenuously implied by the complainants’ attorney and the testifying neighbors.
It is indisputable that the property is an ongoing agricultural operation of growing and selling hundreds if not thousands of palm trees for harvesting and marketing. The fact that Mr. Henry is an artist who has the personal wherewithal to also produce and sell art from his farm was inexplicably discounted when the Commission Chair observed that he was fully aware of Mr. Henry’s distinction as a globally appreciated artist, but that fact was not pertinent to the purposes of the hearing. But, of course, it was.
The alleged objectionable activity is to produce art, not to manufacture widgets. If this had been acknowledged from the beginning, it would have allowed a better appreciation for the fact that the “pertinent” activity is infrequent and would have underscored the fact that the sounds and sights associated therewith are not any more objectionable than what any reasonably sized agricultural operation might produce. This was simply not considered. Anyone who lives next to a farm knows this and many folks in Hernando County do. It was a significant oversight by the Commissioners.
Other unfair things happened at that hearing. Misinformation was given to the commissioners who then struggled for several hours trying to understand what they have the authority to do and what they should do with it. At one point, the complainants’ lawyer had them seemingly convinced they had no authority to allow the Special Exception being requested - and recommended for approval by the Commission’s own staff - until the Henrys’ lawyer, reading directly from statutes and rules, pointed out they did.
So, what should the Commissioners have done? Well, they should have approved their own staff’s recommendation. Doing so would’ve placed reasonable constraints the Henrys’ activities but wouldn’t have ultimately and so arbitrarily after one year banned Mr. Henry from being able to produce his award-winning art on his own property.
Instead, the Commissioners chose to focus on carrying out the rigid specifications of ordinances and laws and ignored their duty to also consider what would be right for the larger community. That is what Special Exceptions are all about. They exist in recognition of the fact that no legal language will ever be able to contemplate all possible situations that a law or ordinance might be intended to address.
As a final point, when the Henrys’ situation is seen in the light of a controversial project approved by the Hernando Commission over the objections of dozens if not hundreds of concerned residents a few years ago, the fact that a hand full of complaining neighbors can so easily cause the County Commission to outright ban an extraordinary man’s lifelong pursuit seems utterly outrageous.
Not too long ago, a request was made to allow a 572-acre rock mine immediately west of the City of Brooksville and adjacent to Cortez Boulevard, a major thoroughfare connecting the city to the rapidly developing residential/commercial area of Spring Hill. But, it was not possible at the time because at least four of the five-member board was needed to approve changes to the county’s Master Plan which, at that time, had the area designated for residential and commercial uses. Lacking the four votes necessary, the mining proposal was withdrawn.
Subsequently, a “friendlier” Commission revised the requirement for a four-member super majority to be able to change the County’s Master Plan so only three would be needed, a simple majority. This despite the vocal and written objections of dozens of Hernando residents.
With only a simple majority now required, the Commission accepted the mining plan and changed the County’s Master Plan to rezone 730 acres, of which rock mining would be allowed on 572. Thus, as a result of the Commission’s decision, a 572-acre rock mine is now going to happen on property directly across the street from a regional hospital despite a lawsuit and the organized objections of dozens of concerned county residents.
Activities associated with rock mining can include clouds of white lime-rock dust, explosions, draglines digging massive holes acres wide, and 110-ton-capacity Euclid vehicles rumbling around all hours of the day. In this case, it was also alleged mining there would disrupt an existing colony of threatened gopher tortoises and impact a nearby historic Brooksville cemetery.
So, while in that instance the voices of perhaps hundreds of residents were unable to sway the Commission, it apparently took only a few for the Hernando County Commission to do what it did to the Henry's. It is simply and inescapably dumbfounding.
By the way, that cloud of “sandblast” dust claimed to have wafted over the fence into the the Henry's neighbors' yards? Turns out, I’m told, it was the Henrys having their white fence pressure washed.
So, wrong was done at that hearing. Hopefully, before the end of the designated year, a way will be found to correct what is now happening to John and Pamela Henry and allow Mr. Henry to continue his passion for creating trend-setting art for as long as he might wish on the property they own in our Hernando County.
It’s the right thing to do.