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Approval of canal deal is expected

Dixie Hollins is seeking the right to dig hefty canals off the former Cross Florida Barge Canal in exchange for allowing a state "greenway" to pass through his northwest Citrus property.

The deal, expected to be approved Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet, upsets some local environmental activists. They say the plan reminds them of developer Jim Eyster's plan to build a marina off the canal east of U.S. 19. They voice the same objections that helped scuttle Eyster's plan: The new canals would threaten manatees and the Floridan aquifer.

But Hollins says he is proposing nothing like the Eyster marina and has no specific use in mind for the canals. He just wants to maintain water access from his property to the canal and the Gulf of Mexico.

The state Department of Environmental Protection proposed the swap as a way to plug a 1.3-mile gap in the greenway.

The greenway will become a trail for hikers, bikers and horse riders stretching in Citrus County from the locks at Lake Rousseau to the Gulf of Mexico. The DEP is required by state law to acquire as much of the land bordering the barge canal as it can.

Helen Spivey of Crystal River, president of Friends of the Manatees, is among those opposing the swap. "The state is trying to correct a mistake made a long time ago," the construction of the barge canal in the 1960s, she said. "It appears they will be making an even bigger mistake."

The original canal was supposed to allow industrial barge traffic to cross Florida; the project was killed for environmental reasons in 1971.

Under the settlement plan, Hollins would apply for permits to dig two canals south of the barge canal and west of U.S. 19.

Each canal would be up to 2,000 feet wide and 300 feet long.

In exchange, Hollins would give the state the remaining parts of his 1.3-mile frontage on the barge canal. The strip, 300 yards wide, totals 117 acres.

He would give easements for the state greenway to go around the ends of the new canals and join with state-owned frontage on either side of his property.

The way Hollins sees it, he's giving the state a break, because he could apply for the canal permits even without the deal.

Hollins says he plans no new mining on the south side of the barge canal. He owns a limerock mine and a canal north of the barge canal.

The settlement would prohibit the public from traveling across Hollins' land on the north shore of the barge canal.

Mrs. Spivey predicted that Hollins would eventually propose building a marina or housing development around the new canals. But the land's zoning as flood-prone would make development more difficult than the Eyster proposal, she predicted.

She also said saltwater from the canals could affect wells in the nearby Crystal Manor subdivision. Hollins says he can show groundwater on his property flows west.

Eyster withdrew his proposal to build a 600-boat marina last fall after the state Department of Community Affairs criticized his proposal for a zoning change for the project.

Mrs. Spivey said she would press the Cabinet to find state land acquisition money to buy a permanent easement across Hollins' entire 1.3 miles of frontage. The state is already planning to buy 5,000 acres of Hollins' land south of the barge canal through the Conservation and Recreational Lands program.

If the governor and Cabinet approve the settlement, Hollins must still win approval for the permits to dredge canals, and he concedes he must surmount some of the same objections that faced Eyster.

"It's going to be difficult," he said. "All I'm asking is for the governor and Cabinet to give me a chance."

The settlement would give Hollins three years to get the permits. During that time, the state could not take the 1.3 miles using eminent domain.

But the state doesn't have enough money to buy that parcel anyway, said Fred Ayre, director of the state Office of Greenways of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"If we could have our druthers, we would not have those (canal) cuts . . .," Ayre said. But, "We were advised by (DEP) lawyers that this is the best solution they felt we could come up with. . . . Nobody says a greenway has to be straight."

Mrs. Spivey fears that "whatever he puts in there (on the south side), hikers would have to go around it. They're going to have to detour 2,000 feet. . . . That's not the kind of thing you can advertise to lure tourists to Citrus County."