HERNANDO BEACH, Fla. — Hernando County’s slate of natural gems gives the crown that is Florida’s Nature Coast much of its luster. There are crystal-clear springs, lush forests, and estuaries teaming with fish.
Soon, locals and visitors might have another option for outdoor recreation — an option that allows them to beat the heat in a refreshing way.
Hernando County is studying a plan to convert part of a former limestone quarry into an artificial beach.
The quarry site, off Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach, was acquired by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in the 90s, and the Weeki Wachee Preserve was created.
At the nature preserve, the former mining pits are now filled with water and form a chain of lakes that span the park. Hikers and cyclists enjoy miles of trails surrounding the lakes.
According to a feasibility study, the preserve is home to native wildlife like black bears and bald eagles in a “rich mosaic of habitats.”
The study suggests the county could convert a portion of one of the lakes — in the northwest corner of the park — into a swimming area with minimal environmental impact. A footbridge will allow visitors access from a parking lot on Shoal Line Boulevard.
“Significant land alterations and impacts from the historical lime rock mining operation, the wetland and wildlife habitat values are low within the proposed project limit,” the study concludes.
However, a group of neighbors, business owners, and nature lovers have founded the group Preserve the Preserve and believe the study underestimates the amount of harm and environmental damage an artificial beach would cause the preserve and its wildlife.
“It just makes no sense to me when you’ve already invested so much in conserving those lands that you would compromise the preservation,” said Eugene Kelly, a conservation biologist who has voiced opposition to the idea along with other members of the group.
Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers, however, said the swimming area is badly needed. Other options for swimming in the county are limited as the demand for ecotourism grows.
“On any day when the sun’s bright, and it’s a great day to go to the beach, our beach areas are usually filled to capacity by 9 or 10 o’clock (in the morning),” Rogers said.
Rogers believes an additional swimming area would also alleviate demand being felt at the county’s main attraction, Weeki Wachee springs. There, along the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River, overuse is having a noticeable environmental impact.
Rope swings are bending and snapping trees. Some paddlers are beaching their kayaks, canoes, and boats and, as a result, eroding the delicate river banks. Visitors’ feet are trampling and injuring plants both above the water and below it, including eelgrass, which is a precious food source for visiting manatees.
A Feb. 2020 study conducted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Hernando County linked river recreation with “environmental degradation” and, along with public outcry about the river’s worsening conditions, led county commissioners to seek change.
Right now, using a relatively-new state statute, the county has asked the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to designate a stretch of the Weeki Wachee River as a Springs Protection Zone.
Such a designation would drastically change what is and isn’t allowed on the river. If approved, it would aim to stop visitors from getting out of their boats to swim or walk on riverbanks, sand point bars, or the river bottom by prohibiting virtually all banking and anchoring of kayaks, canoes, and other boats.
To Rogers, converting part of the former quarry site into an artificial beach could serve as a compromise and provide locals and visitors an option for swimming if swimming in the river is banned.
The Weeki Wachee Preserve — where the former mine is located and where the artificial beach might be built — is roughly a 10 minute drive from where many currently access the Weeki Wachee River.
“We shouldn’t necessarily take something away without providing a solution,” he said. “We believe that, while we’re trying to protect the Weeki Wachee River currently, we believe pushing the recreation to a disturbed mine is better for the overall environment in Hernando County.”
However, some county residents like Kelly and Jodie Pillarella believe the idea for the former quarry is half-baked.
“It’s Weeki Wachee Preserve, and it is just not a compatible usage,” said Kelly.
“They want you to drag your kayak over a footbridge — thousands of feet — into this landing area and paddle in a circle?” added Pillarella, rhetorically.
April Johnson-Spence, who’s also opposed to constructing an artificial beach at the former quarry, believes the project won’t alleviate the damage that’s being caused to Weeki Wachee River by overuse. She fears the project will, instead, leave the county with two damaged natural areas.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Well, it was an old mine.’ What was it before it was a mine? Right? That’s the reason we’re preserving it,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to trade one natural resource for another. That makes no sense. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
She feels money would be better spent improving existing parks or constructing a public pool.
County Administrator Rogers maintains that the project would be limited in scope, and the vast majority of the preserve would still be preserved and intact for hiking and wildlife viewing.
“It’s a very limited area that we have to work with, so it’s not a huge, extravagant beach that you might think,” he said. “We’ll bring some sand in that area and make a safe swimming area for our residents.”
He estimates that the project would cost around $7.8 million. It will require the county commission’s approval, and commissioners are expected to consider the project in a meeting in October.
Meanwhile, the county is accepting public comments about the plan through Sept. 12. Send your feedback to Hernando County at this link.