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Crowd has a pre-vote tug of war over marina

In one form or another, the proposed barge canal marina has been on the drawing board for a decade.

But Tuesday marked the first time that the current crop of county commissioners _ the ones who will say do or die to this project _ got a serious look at the development that some see as a boon to the economy and others see as a bust for the environment.

A standing-room-only crowd of business leaders and environmental activists turned out for the event although the commission was scheduled only to listen, not to vote on the matter.

Still, competing interests worked hard to win the favor of the commissioners.

In the early hours of the evening hearing, commissioners kept quiet as county staff explained the proposed changes in the Citrus master plan for growth, changes that would pave the way for the project.

Then commissioners listened some more as person after person went to the microphone to express their opinion on what would be the second-largest marina in the state.

"This project is environmentally sound," proclaimed Jim Hofmeister of the Homosassa Chamber of Commerce, "because it takes this from a dirty mine" to a clean operation that will promote economic growth.

The site of the proposed marina is zoned for industrial use and has been mined. The specific issue being reviewed by the commission is whether to change the zoning to allow the project.

Each of the county's three chambers of commerce heartily endorsed the marina. They were joined by representatives of the Citrus County Builders' Association, the Board of Realtors, the Economic Development Association and the Florida Restaurant Association.

If the project is not approved, warned John Osborne of the builders association, "it's going to send a clear signal to the businesses outside the county that they aren't welcome."

On the other side, Jim Blount of Floral City, representing a group called Friends of the Greenway, took issue with business leaders' suggestions that the marina would generate hefty property taxes and impact fees.

While it would add hundreds of thousands of dollars to impact fee collections, Blount said, "impact fees are not a gift." He expects the marina would be "a massive project that we're going to keep feeding funds to."

Crystal Manor resident John Camillo blasted the marina and its supporters, saying that industrial development advocates who support the marina while touting the area as being the unspoiled Nature Coast are "speaking out of both sides of their mouths."

He also asked why the commission would believe traffic studies and wildlife studies paid for by Jim Eyster, who is leading a group of 32 investors in the marina project. "They're a joke," Camillo said. "You're not getting the facts."

Other speakers suggested the marina would hurt the endangered manatee, encourage saltwater intrusion into the aquifer and otherwise pollute the water.

Eyster presented a history of his proposal, which started as a government plan but evolved into a private effort that is receiving some government assistance.

He said county government expenses have been limited to $25,000 worth of staff planning time. In exchange, Eyster's group will give the county a boat ramp.

The marina is planned for a 143-acre parcel just south of the now-defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal and east of U.S. 19.

Plans for the marina project call for 140 single-family homes and condominiums, 367 docks, dry storage for 200 boats, a restaurant and boat ramp. All told, the development would provide water access for an estimated 617 boats.

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the land-use change July 6.

If the changes are approved, the marina will go through a lengthy set of reviews because the project would be a development of regional impact.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.