TALLAHASSEE — For decades, Helen Spivey has fought to preserve Three Sisters Springs, a crystal-clear utopian enclave that's home to hundreds of manatees in Citrus County.
On Thursday, as she found herself close to realizing her dream, she recalled the first time she took a dip in the cool waters. "It was so clear, swimming was almost like floating on air," said Spivey, a chief advocate for the springs.
But the save-the-springs rallying cries didn't convince a state preservation board to spend the final $2 million needed to buy the 57-acre property in Crystal River from a private developer who is planning a subdivision.
Citing concerns about paying too much and hurting other worthy preservation projects, the Florida Community Trust deadlocked in a 3-3 vote that left the future of the popular winter home for manatees in jeopardy.
Tampa developer Hal Flowers agreed in principle to sell the property to the city of Crystal River for $11.8 million. A unique coalition of local governments, business groups and nonprofit organizations pulled together $9.8 million for an initial offer, and state Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, earmarked $2 million in this year's state budget for the remaining portion. But the state preservation board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, held the final word on the budget money.
"I really hope we bring this jewel … into the fold of the public domain," Dean told the board.
The testimony from two dozen supporters, who left Citrus County at 5 a.m. to attend the hearing at the state Capitol, impressed the board. Moments after rejecting the $2 million request, board members unanimously voted to give the project $725,000 to up the offer to $10.5 million — the amount the owners paid for the property in March 2005.
But the extra money didn't comfort supporters like Spivey, a leading member of the Save the Manatee Club. "I don't think it will fly because that's not upping it enough," she said after the meeting.
Flowers did not attend the meeting and did not return messages.
His attorney, Clark Stillwell, told the state board he would take the new offer to his client, but couldn't comment on a possible outcome. He said the total wouldn't make his client whole because of the thousands already spent on the permitting process and consultants.
Preservation board members told supporters they strongly support the project, citing the $6.3 million the board gave the project in 2008. But if Three Sisters received $2 million more, other projects on the priority list might not get money.
"FCT supports this project, but we have to look at the whole state," said board member Bob Ballard, a deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Another dispute involved the true value of the land. Board members did not want to pay more than it was worth. A number of appraisals set different figures, ranging from $4 million to $8 million. In 2006, the landowners set the purchase price at $16 million.
"I don't think we could in good conscious take from Peter to pay Paul," Ruth Stanbridge of Indian River County said.
Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham voted to give the project the full amount because he said the Legislature clearly designated the money for Three Sisters. "I think that overrides the other considerations we are concerned about," he said.
Supporters tried to counter skeptical board members with personal pleas about the location's unique values, but still left the meeting uncertain.
"I've got to have hope," said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. "But I'm very concerned. … We will have lost an opportunity that is priceless."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.