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Agency questions plan for boat ramp

A boat ramp the county plans to build at a new park along the Crystal River may be blocked by a federal agency that says the ramp and others the county intends to allow along the river will weaken Citrus' proposed manatee-protection plan. The county ramp would be part of a new park off of Fort Island Trail near the confluence of the Crystal and Salt rivers.

The proposed protection plan states that the new ramp would benefit manatees by encouraging boat launches closer to the Gulf of Mexico instead of in congested Kings Bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an opinion released last month, says that a virtual ban on other new ramps on the Crystal River is needed to offset any increase in boat traffic from the proposed county ramp.

"The construction of the ramp, at this time, is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the manatee," wrote Warren Olds Jr., acting regional Fish and Wildlife director in Atlanta.

The county hopes to begin construction of the two-boat ramp, parking for 50 cars and trailers and restrooms by late summer or early fall, said Karen Barnett, the county parks and recreation director.

Later phases would add a fishing pier, a boardwalk, a playground and picnic pavilions.

The original draft of the manatee-protection plan, completed in January, banned new boat ramps on the Crystal River except at the mouth at the Gulf of Mexico and at the planned Fort Island Trail park.

The County Commission added to that draft an exception for private neighborhood boat ramps outside of manatee-refuge areas.

"We agree that boat traffic will be taken out of Kings Bay if (the county ramp) is constructed, but if other boat ramps are constructed, we won't be accomplishing anything except putting more boats in the river," said Dawn Zattau, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Jacksonville.

The commission has sent the proposed protection plan to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) for review. Several agencies, including Fish and Wildlife, plan to comment on the plan.

The county hopes to resolve the differences with Fish and Wildlife through this review process, said Steve Bennett, a county planner.

Zattau said her agency would be willing to reconsider the proposed boat ramp at Fort Island Trail park after the final manatee protection plan is approved by the governor and the cabinet.

The review of the plan by the DCA and other agencies is expected to be completed in late July, Bennett said.

The County Commission then will have until late September to make changes to the plan and resubmit it to the DCA.

Even if Fish and Wildlife blocks the boat ramp, Barnett said the park still should be built. There is considerable public demand for a fishing pier on the Crystal River, she said.

If the permit process for the boat ramp drags on, the county could switch some of the phases to build other parts of the park first, Barnett said.

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