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State has an eye on area sites

Published Oct. 6, 2005

The Port Paradise Resort again has been offered for sale to a government body _ this time to the state of Florida.

Resort owner Jim Dicks recently proposed that the state buy his 7-acre hotel, restaurant and marina complex on Kings Bay for an as-yet-unnamed sum. The resort is one of several properties in Citrus and Hernando counties proposed late last month for purchase to the state's Conservation and Recreational Lands Program, known as the CARL program.

Other properties to be considered for further study include 2,500 acres in various parcels along the Cross Florida Greenway in Citrus, Levy and Marion counties, the 2,662-acre Jordan Ranch, nearly 30,500 acres stretching across southwest Citrus and northwest Hernando counties known as the Annutteliga Hammock and the more than 6,000 acres making up the proposed Oak Sound development south of Weeki Wachee.

The state's Land Acquisition Advisory Council will consider whether to further examine those sites and 10 others across the state at a meeting March 9.

If a project gets four of the six available votes, the land is studied further, including examination of the land's features and wildlife.

CARL officials in Tallahassee said the Port Paradise proposal, while it has some merit because of its proximity to prime manatee habitat in Kings Bay, is an unlikely pick for further study.

CARL program priorities have focused in the past on pristine, undeveloped areas, parcels often slated for development that have significant value as a habitat for endangered animals and plants.

"Occasionally, there are some areas that don't quite fit the normal," said Greg Brock, CARL administrator. "I don't think that that one will get enough votes . . . but it is a major winter congregation area for manatees."

Brock said he expected the purchase would be supported by some manatee advocates who would reason "it would be better for the state to acquire it and tear it down."

Although considering such a purchase might be unusual, Brock said the state recently bought the Silver Springs attraction to protect the property surrounding the Silver River.

Dicks, who has owned Port Paradise for about 15 years, had offered the property for sale to the federal government in 1989 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was hunting for a site for its administrative offices and a manatee interpretive education center.

The agency ultimately rejected the purchase, since the proposed price was several times the $650,000 the agency had to spend, and bought an adjacent residential lot and home instead.

Dicks did not return several phone calls last week.

The Jordan Ranch proposal is going to the state for consideration for the third time. Twice before, the committee rejected the idea of further studying the purchase of the site in northeastern Citrus County.

The property, which includes sandhills, flat woods, hardwood hammocks and one of the last scrub habitats in the county, was also rejected for county purchase by the voters in a 1992 referendum.

The Greenbelt properties on the list for consideration stretch from Citrus and Levy to Marion counties and include a series of parcels that would help to better connect the state's Cross Florida Greenway trail, according to Brock.

"These are parcels in private ownership which are critical to maintaining the continuity of the Greenway," Brock said.

The largest of the proposals in the area is the Annutteliga Hammock.

"We would see that as a connector between the Chassahowitzka swamp and wildlife refuge and the Withlacoochee State Forest," Brock said. "It's a potentially important area for the bears to move between the two areas."

The hammock also includes unique habitat and plant species, officials say.

The massive hammock area is also the target of intense development pressure, according to CARL environmental specialist Mark Garland.

The final project in the two-county area proposed for purchase is a site that also has been proposed for one of the largest developments in the North Suncoast _ Oak Sound.

Although a large portion of that property is environmentally sensitive and slated to be reserved for conservation anyway, Garland said there are concerns that the remainder of the development will force out the black bears there.

If any of the 15 properties on the current list makes the first cut for more study in next week's vote, the proposal will be examined again by the Land Acquisition Advisory Committee in July. If the committee decides then that the parcel is worth further consideration, additional study is done, including researching ownerships and boundary adjustments.

In December, the committee will decide whether to place properties on the existing CARL priority list.

There are two Citrus projects now on the list for which the state is negotiating.

Nearly 90 percent of the St. Martins Project, which stretches along 17,000 acres of Citrus County's west coast from Crystal River to Ozello, already has been acquired.

The state also is negotiating to buy the Crystal River Project. The parcels included in that acquisition stretch from the St. Martins Project to the Cross Florida Greenway and encompass 9,300 acres.

Much of that project is owned by the Hollins family; another small chunk includes the Crystal Cove project just north of the Crystal River.

Once a project ranks high enough on the priority list for acquisition, the land is purchased only if the state and the property owner agree on a price.

_ Information from Times files used in this report.