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Manatee site loses support

Crystal River may call itself the "home of the manatees," but it probably won't be the home of the federal government's manatee interpretive education center any time soon. City Council shot down a comprehensive plan change late Monday that would have allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a manatee education center, as well as an administrative office in a spacious home the agency owns on Kings Bay Drive.

Council members voted against sending the change to the Department of Community Affairs _ basically a technicality _ but federal wildlife officials said Tuesday that the council's failure to cooperate probably will end discussion of a manatee center on the site.

"As far as I'm concerned," local wildlife refugee manager Cameron Shaw said Tuesday, "at this point, the chances for Crystal River ending up with a federally funded manatee interpretive education center took a significant decline last night.

"Kind of like the Cleveland Indians, maybe we'll go someplace else."

City officials stressed throughout the emotional meeting Monday evening that they don't oppose manatees, only the federal government's lack of following procedures. The government, they said, failed to comply with city zoning rules, community deed restrictions and its application to amend the city comprehensive plan.

City officials also warned federal officials that they will be cited if they try to move into their property.

For nearly two hours, council members, neighbors, manatee advocates and business concerns debated the deficiencies the city has identified in the Fish and Wildlife Service plan.

Council member Sid Kennedy said he hoped the council would transmit the plan to DCA. DCA officials then could back what the city had been saying about the deficiencies.

Not transmitting the proposed change to the DCA "keeps the battle on the local level," Kennedy said. "We can fight them, but we're never going to win if we don't do it with procedures."

Council member Alexander Ilnyckyj asked whether sending the amendment to DCA incomplete would set a dangerous precedent, but city officials said it had been done before.

Several city officials also expressed concern that they would be seen as opposing manatee protection if they didn't support the manatee education center.

"I never have sensed that this City Council was against the manatee interpretive education center," Mayor Curtis Rich said. "This question here is strictly following procedure."

But many of those who spoke from the audience saw the issue as a larger one.

Leonard Berg, a neighbor and opponent of the manatee center, said he understood the agency would move its administrative headquarters into the center regardless of the council's vote.

"What's the next step the city's going to do?" Berg asked.

"I think the city of Crystal River can cite them if they move in there," council member Levi Phillips said. "And I think we will do that."

"I don't think the federal government is above the law," Berg said.

Manatee advocate and president of Concerned Citizens of Citrus County Helen Spivey encouraged the city to support the city and blasted council members for past statements against manatee protection and the manatee center.

"I am surprised that as word spreads that you're opposed to all things manatee" that tourists don't avoid Crystal River, she said.

An education center "brings prestige" to a community. "People do not understand why you do not capitalize on the federal government's needs. They have to have an interpretive center on Kings Bay."

As Spivey left the podium, she was criticized by Ilnyckyj for statements she made about his opposition and by Phillips who accused her of spearheading the letter-writing campaign for the center.

Sam Lyons, representing Citizens for Regulated Equality on our Waterways (CREW), spoke against the manatee center site.

"Neither I nor any member of our organization are opposed to the manatee education center in Crystal River," Lyons said. "We are opposed to the site that has been selected and the manner in which this thing has been conducted."

But wildlife refuge manager Shaw defended his agency's position. He said the first he heard of deficiencies in his application came at a Parks, Planning and Zoning Commission meeting two and a half weeks ago. He said he wanted more time to prepare his information.

But the council chose not to give that extra time. They voted 4-1 against sending the amendment to DCA, with Kennedy casting the only no vote.

Shaw said Tuesday that he was "disappointed but certainly not surprised" by the vote.

"This is fairly typical of what we've been experiencing over the last couple of years, stumbling blocks and stalls," Shaw said.

He added that he will wait to see if the city approaches him to continue the process, but that he felt that _ unless that happens _ "I'm not going to waste any more time on this thing."

He said he plans to have moved his administrative office into the site by the end of the month.

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