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Expanded Kiwanis plan meets resistance

Jack Murdock of the Florida Kiwanis Foundation was finding the atmosphere inside the Istachatta community center Thursday night a little warm - and getting hotter by the second. Murdock had come to this normally placid community to outline an expanded Kiwanis plan to turn 125 acres of vacant land in the northeast corner of Hernando County into a $10-million summer camp and resort-like conference center with room for more than 500 people.

Instead, Murdock found himself facing a hostile crowd of 30 residents who questioned not only the plan for the center, but also the integrity of the men proposing it.

The residents said the plan was a far cry from the more modest project Kiwanis officials presented two years ago. They thought the sentiment of their tiny village was being ignored by the giant international service organization.

"We're not ogres or anything," resident Lee Metzler told Murdock. "We're not asking for much. We're only asking for consideration."

Finally, Murdock angrily stalked out of the meeting, taking with him the scale model of the proposed camp and conference center.

But Murdock's exit did not end the controversy. And Istachatta residents vowed to take their complaints to the County Commission on Tuesday and ask it to overturn an earlier approval of the project.

The 125-acre project site is the east portion of a 275-acre tract along Lake Lindsey Road that Hernando County received from the federal government in the early 1970s. The land was given on the condition that it be used for recreational purposes.

The Florida Kiwanis Foundation stepped forward several years ago with a plan for a free camp for handicapped and underprivileged youths. Now that plan has evolved into: A 200-bunk youth camp with swimming, sports and horseback-riding

facilities.

A conference center with an indoor swimming pool and room for 220, to be used by churches, service groups and others for training sessions and conferences.

A retreat center offering accommodations for 100 people. The retreat center, with tennis and basketball courts, will be used for seminars and conferences by Kiwanis groups and professional organizations.

The Kiwanis Foundation received approval for the revised plan from the county Board of Zoning Adjustment and Appeals this month.

Residents want the County Commission to examine the project before it moves ahead.

Murdock, executive director of the proposed facility, and Larry Kravet, chairman of the project's governing board, said the retreat and conference centers are needed to collect fees that will be used to pay for the operation of the youth camp.

But even Istachatta residents who support most of the Kiwanis plan - such as Tony Lagone - think that the group has used the concept of helping disadvantaged youths to its own benefit.

"I'm afraid they're using the kids to get in there and build their own private country club," said Lagone, chairman of the Istachatta-Nobleton Recreation District Board, which controls the 275-acre park site.

Though some people would like to see the entire project scrapped, most of those at the meeting Thursday said they would be satisfied if three changes were made to the Kiwanis plan.

The Kiwanis officials already have agreed to one of the requests - the elimination of a rifle range. The other requests are: the elimination of a service entrance off Osage Road, which residents say cannot handle the truck traffic that would service the facility; and the placement of a sewage treatment plant in the middle of the project rather than near the north boundary.

Kravet said his group is willing to work with the Istachatta residents, but he doubted whether any changes could be made before the County Commission meeting Tuesday. He told residents that perhaps the Kiwanis should have made an earlier presentation to the recreation board and the community.

But Kravet also noted that at least one member of the recreation board had been apprised of the revised plan and should have kept the community informed.

Some community critics think the Kiwanis broke the terms of its agreement with the recreation board to build the youth camp by not keeping the board informed of the changes.

They would like to see the board cancel the agreement entirely, even though it gives the Istachatta-Nobleton Recreation District 5 percent of the camp's revenues to develop the remaining 150 acres of the park site.

But others, such as Lagone, say such a move could prompt the federal government to retake the property and eventually sell it to someone with even more undesirable plans. It will be the children who will suffer if nothing ever gets built, Lagone said.

Still, emotions are running high.

Or, as one resident told Murdock and Kravet, "We are holding the sword of Damocles over your head."

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