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Greenway attracts state's interest

After three years of trying, a small group of environmentalists finally has convinced a state agency that its pet project _ 1,700 acres of coastal land _ is worth buying.

Staffers of the Southwest Florida Water Management District will recommend that the property be added to its current project of environmentally sensitive land purchases around the Weeki Wachee River.

The most significant part of the overall project is 6,000 acres south of the river that Swiftmud bought last December from Oman Construction Co. The company had previously planned to build the massive Oak Sound development on the land.

The proposed addition is a mix of highlands and wetlands north and south of Aripeka and west of U.S. 19. About 1,250 acres are in Hernando County; about 450 acres in Pasco.

The Gulf Coast Conservancy, an environmental group based in Aripeka, has tried to get officials with a variety of state and county land acquisition programs to buy the acreage, which it calls the Aripeka Coastal Greenway.

Swiftmud's interest in the greenway is being treated as a big step by the group backing the purchase.

"It looks very good," said Leslie Neumann of the Gulf Coast Conservancy.

But there are still several obstacles to clear before the parcel can officially become a part of the Weeki Wachee project, which, besides the Oak Sound property, includes several hundred acres on either side of the river.

And, said Ron Daniel, Swiftmud's land acquisition manager, "there's no chance of us buying any of that land this year."

To become a part of the Weeki Wachee project, the Greenway must get the approval of several groups, including a land acquisition panel made up of representatives of Swiftmud's eight basin boards. Then the Swiftmud governing board would have to give it the final go-ahead.

Though complicated, it is likely that the project will successfully pass through the process because the staff recommendation carries a great deal of weight, Daniel said.

Once it is approved, Swiftmud can make purchasing decisions based on land availability and its value, said Fritz Musselmann, Swiftmud's director of land resources.

One key factor is whether the seller is offering the land for a reasonable price, officials said. And one complication with the greenway is that it is made up of dozens of small, individually owned parcels.

The agency is expected to get about $30-million for land acquisition in the upcoming fiscal year, Musselmann said.