CRYSTAL RIVER — The pre-eminent natural manatee habitat and viewing location in Central Florida became public property Wednesday when a coalition of public and private entities purchased the 57.8-acre Three Sisters Springs property from private developers for $10.5 million.
The parcel, which abuts two important winter manatee protection zones and surrounds the scenic Three Sisters spring run, will be owned by the city of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage the site as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The acquisition more than doubles the size of the refuge and stops the residential development planned on the property by an ownership group headed by Tampa developer Hal Flowers.
Flowers had worked cooperatively with the many public and private sector partners that pulled off the purchase. Environmentalists had pushed for decades for the purchase because the springs attract hundreds of manatees in the winter.
That need was made even clearer this past winter as manatees piled into Three Sisters to escape record cold while hundreds of the animals died across the state from cold stress.
The movement to purchase it was considered extraordinary because it included parties that had historically been at odds over manatee protection and development issues.
"This ensures the public can enjoy the beautiful springs and the manatees that depend on its unspoiled habitat," Sen. Bill Nelson was quoted as saying. Nelson visited the site in 2008. "Many people have worked to make this conservation effort happen and it's wonderful to see it all come together."
"A project like this really does take a village," said Lace Blue-McLean, president of the lead agency on the acquisition, the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "This was truly all about a community that cared about protecting this special place."