CRYSTAL RIVER — Efforts to acquire the environmentally sensitive Three Sisters Springs that seemed dead last month when state funding fell short are now closer than ever to protecting the springs and surrounding land from development.
A decision last month by the Florida Communities Trust to only offer part of a $2 million special allocation built into the state budget for Three Sisters had nearly doomed the project.
But a group headed by Tampa developer Hal Flowers subsequently agreed to sell the property for $10.5 million, more than $1 million less than it had sought.
Then, this week, the Crystal River City Council took a series of steps that all but assures that the 57-acre parcel will soon be in public ownership and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Financially, it wasn't a win for us, but it was the right thing to do," said Flowers, whose group paid $10.5 million when it bought the land in 2005.
Federal wildlife agency officials see Three Sisters, named for the three major vents that pump millions of gallons of 72-degree water every day into Kings Bay, as the top purchase priority in the southeastern United States because the warm, pristine waters provide a critical wintering spot for endangered manatees.
For manatee enthusiasts, the site is the preeminent place to view manatees, which flock there each winter. This past winter, record numbers of manatees piled into the springs during unusually cold weather.
A handful of minor legal issues remain, but the primary partners in the coalition that has been working for years to save the springs are anticipating a closing on July 28.
Flowers praised the tenacity of the partners who worked together to make the purchase of the property possible.
"I'm a developer, and I've never seen such a diverse group of people get together to get something done," he said. "I'm so incredibly proud of that coalition. It happened because of these people."
Indeed, many of the key players have been on opposing sides over the years on other development projects. This time, developers, business people and government officials locked arms instead of horns.
Helen Spivey, a former state representative and co-chairwoman of the Save the Manatee Club, has played a key role in many efforts to save Three Sisters over the last 25 years. For her, the victory rates "right on top of the heap" of her many lifelong environmental successes.
"When you think of what this means to the city, which I love, what it means to the people, who I love, and what it means to manatees, there's just no topping it," she said.
"We are extremely, extremely excited," said Lace Blue-McLean, president of the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex Inc., the lead agency for the coalition's efforts. "In the end, everyone was committed to make this happen."
The acquisition will include funding from the federal, state and local levels including money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (which is commonly known as Swiftmud), the Crystal River City Council, the Citrus County Commission and the county's Tourist Development Council.
Private donations include $2 million from the Felburn Foundation and thousands of private donations from residents who sometimes would bring checks forward at City Council meetings.
Under the agreements approved so far, the city of Crystal River and Swiftmud will own the land and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage it as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, more than doubling the size of the refuge-controlled lands in Crystal River.
A detailed management plan reflects what the federal agency hopes to accomplish at Three Sisters in the years ahead, depending on the availability of funding, according to refuge manager Michael Lusk.
Already people are calling wanting to know when the land will open to visitors and even one call has come in to conduct a wedding there. All that must wait a while as the access and management questions are worked out, Lusk said.
Pat Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, has worked on various acquisition attempts before. This time, he said, the stars all aligned.
Everyone understood that protecting the manatees and preserving the critical Three Sisters Springs location was in everyone's best interests.
"We were able to find a solution that was good both for the economy and good for the resource," he said. "We can celebrate, finally."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.