CRYSTAL RIVER — Hal Flowers had his "aha" moment standing waist deep in chilly spring water as he stared into the sliced-open gut of a young manatee.
Until that cold day in February, the Tampa developer had nurtured a plan to build more than 300 homes on 60 acres that surround Three Sisters Springs, an environmental "crown jewel of Citrus County," in the words of one official.
But there he was cradling a wounded manatee, standing shoulder to shoulder with two environmentalists who were convinced that Flowers' plans would pollute the pristine water and endanger the manatees who use the springs as their winter refuge.
Watching the manatee's struggle to live, Flowers said, "was a very sobering moment.''
The manatee, later dubbed Baby Sister, survived. Flowers says he realized something else needed to be rescued.
"I could not have asked for anything more to give me the understanding of the importance of saving that place,'' he said.
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Three years earlier, Flowers had shown off his new acquisition to dignitaries and the news media. He had just purchased the site for $10.5-million and envisioned a housing project that he said would honor the unique landscape.
It was a difficult moment for many conservationists in Citrus, who had long campaigned to purchase the property and add it to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which is known as the best place in Central Florida to view manatees.
"There's no doubt, this is environmentally the crown jewel of Citrus County,'' said county Commissioner Gary Bartell.
But back in 2005 they couldn't raise enough public money to buy the parcel. Later, when Flowers received planning approval to build several hundred homes, it seemed the site's fate was sealed.
But over the years Flowers came to believe that the site's greatest asset was also a liability. Having scores of manatee watchers crowding the springs was not going to appeal to the prospective waterfront homeowners.
Add to that a sluggish housing market, and Flowers became receptive to a new appeal from a conservation group.
The day before his encounter with the injured manatee, Flowers met with David Houghton, a consultant who works with the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
Houghton, who was one of the two other men in the water that day, subsequently outlined an innovative plan by which Flowers could put the property in public hands.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is expected to visit Three Sisters today and hear supporters pitch the need for federal funding. Already, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has visited, and U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite has asked for a $5.6-million federal allocation for the purchase.
The city of Crystal River has applied for a $6.3-million grant from the Florida Communities Trust. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is considering spending $2-million to return a corner of the property to hardwood swamp. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified Three Sisters as the most important land acquisition priority in the Southeast.
Assembling all the players has been Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the citizens support group for Crystal River and affiliated refuges. The hope is that if the land is acquired it would be added to the existing refuge.
The Friends along with Save the Manatee Club, Citrus 20/20 and the Crystal River Waterfronts Board and others have been spearheading local fundraising.
The project has won a $2-million pledge from the Felburn Foundation and $100,000 each from Citrus County, Crystal River and the Citrus County Tourist Development Council.
The push is so popular that at a recent town meeting in Crystal River, residents came forward to write $1,000 personal checks to the City Council. With an expected asking price hovering around $15-million, the effort is several hundred thousand dollars short of its goal. Officials have until this fall to get the rest.
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Supporters of the acquisition note this is the same process that was used to create the Crystal River refuge 25 years ago. But this time they see an opportunity to establish the manatee viewing from the land rather than the water.
That would help Jim Kraus, manager of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, who has found managing human interaction with manatees in and around the springs to be a real problem. Two of the area's winter manatee sanctuaries abut the property.
"It would be tremendously important in terms of long-term conservation,'' said Kraus, the third man involved in saving Baby Sister. "It would take some of the pressure off them in the water. It would provide an alternative that's low-impact and accessible to more people.''
Helen Spivey, a longtime advocate for Three Sisters and co-chairwoman of Save the Manatee Club, said the chance to promote passive observation of manatees is important in Crystal River, where manatee harassment has tainted tourism's image.
"This would be the most important thing that ever happened in this area for manatees,'' Spivey said.
Flowers said he admires the tenacity of those who are pushing the preservation. A lifelong developer, he said he has seen his share of "hobbyist'' environmentalists. He called the Friends group, Spivey and others involved the "unsung heros'' of the Three Sisters story.
The Three Sisters property could more than double the original refuge area, something Kraus said would be a perfect fit.
"If you look at 25 years of history of this place," he said, "that's the missing piece.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.