CRYSTAL RIVER — Robin Humphrey objects to proposed rules to protect manatees in Kings Bay, and he's using an old-school way to show his distaste.
Humphrey is going all Amish on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by shunning the agency's local employees, and he wants his waterfront neighbors to do the same.
It's the latest twist in a controversy that already has seen local tea party members say the rules violate Bible teachings and the Bill of Rights, a city council oppose measures that it once urged the federal government to impose, and the whole mess reach a national audience through the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
At issue are rules proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in June to end the summer water sport zone that allows boats and water skiers to zoom through Kings Bay. All of the bay would become a refuge, and temporary rules posted by the agency in the winter would become permanent. Those enabled the agency to close areas in the bay to people as warranted.
Crystal River has long been split on manatee protection. More than 100,000 people annually visit the city to watch and swim with the endangered species, the only place in the United States where that is allowed. The visitors are a huge economic boom to the area.
But growing reports of manatee harassment, boat strikes and the threat of a federal lawsuit over human interactions with the lumbering mammals have led to a loud cry for more protections.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on its proposals through Monday.
Humphrey, however, wants to voice his views through shunning, a technique used by religions such as the Amish and Mennonites to punish members of a community who go against the group's basic tenets.
Humphrey would like Citrus County restaurants to serve the agency's local employees more slowly. He wants residents to turn their backs on them. He blows his car's horn when he passes the agency's office.
Some waterfront homeowners oppose the rules, saying they go too far. They say their property values will drop; the wildlife service says the opposite will happen. Residents also worry that fishing enthusiasts and water skiers will go elsewhere, taking money away from local businesses.
"Our families will suffer economically," said Humphrey, who has lived on the bay for 10 years. "Their families need to feel the heat of a peeved populace by not being accepted as members of this community.
"Sounds a bit loony," he acknowledged. "We must, as a community, make these people feel unwelcome. We need to get names and pictures and at any and all opportunities, express our opprobrium."
Several of the 14 neighbors who got the e-mail said they had no intention of shunning the employees of the refuge. But one did.
"I did go by honking. I honked the horn on general principle," said Carlyn Gunnell. "I think they should feel uncomfortable because we've all felt uncomfortable."
The e-mail prompted refuge manager Michael Lusk to put his dozen workers on alert. "It's not that any of us feel threatened," he said. "It's just childish. It's bizarre."
Other than hearing an occasional honking horn, none of his employees have reported noticing anyone shunning them. Lusk said the tactic only works if you already have a relationship with the other person.
He noted the agency is just moving ahead with rules the community itself suggested and that were backed by the City Council in 2007.
In August of that year, the Waterfronts Advisory Board urged the City Council to seek a manatee refuge designation for Kings Bay to make the bay idle speed year round. The council balked but, after hearing comment primarily in favor of ending the high-speed summer sport zone, it accepted the year-round slow-speed stance.
The City Council voted unanimously to forward the recommendations to the wildlife service. Six months later, City Manager Andy Houston again sent the wildlife service the council's resolution and the advisory board's recommendations, urging the agency to consider the "related letter of support from the City Council" as it developed rules for Kings Bay.
But when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed rules in June that would implement those recommendations, there were immediate howls of protest by the Citrus County Commission — and the city of Crystal River.
Now, both the council and the County Commission are demanding a chance to speak to the proposed rules.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, has asked the agency to slow down action on the rules so local officials can comment. Those comments, noted Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, were given and accepted four years ago.
"We are utterly flabbergasted that anyone would be so brazen as to say they haven't had the opportunity to give input," he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.