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River Cove Landings to expand

Miles down Fort Island Trail, long after the neighborhoods of Crystal River give way to marshlands and palm-covered coastal islands, a small cluster of 18 condominiums is about to grow much larger.

Last week, Citrus County issued permits to allow River Cove Landings to expand with 10 more condominiums. The developer, Fred Del Guidice of Maitland, plans to begin construction in the next two weeks.

That is just the beginning of a multimillion-dollar development that may be the only one of its kind in the county.

Plans for the 31-acre project call for up to 260 residential units _ a density that would be unheard of under the county's growth limits.

River Cove Landings, however, was one of the last coastal developments to pass through the approval process before the county dramatically tightened its housing density limits for environmentally sensitive areas in the 1980s.

Today, a piece of land that size with that zoning could have no more than one home built on it.

One day last week, project manager Roland Leduc visited the property, where stakes mark the sites for the 10 condo units, forming two new buildings, each with views of the Crystal River.

Pausing near the electronic gate, Leduc said, "It's the only gated community around here. And when there's enough units, we're going to have security guards."

Just how many units is enough is still an open question.

"We reserve the right to go ahead and change our mind," Leduc said.

Building significantly fewer than 260 units, he said, could preserve more "green space" and make the development more attractive to home buyers.

The first construction phase, including the 10 condominiums that have been permitted, calls for 52 condominiums in all.

At that point, the development's sewage plant, located across Fort Island Trail, would reach its capacity, requiring an expansion to support additional homes.

But under current rules, Department of Environmental Protection specialist Phyllis James said, it would be "very difficult" for the developers to win approval for a plant expansion.

Conveniently for Del Guidice and his company, Crystal River Isles Inc., the county is planning to set aside $7.3-million to build a sewer- and waterline extension past the property.

The money will become available if voters approve a 1-cent sales tax increase next month, which is to go toward a list of water-related projects, including the Fort Island Trail extension, out to its Salt River crossing.

"We'd be glad to button onto it," Leduc said. "It'd be a heck of a lot cheaper for us in the long run."

But would it be fair to voters who would support the extension with tax revenues?

Longtime environmentalist Helen Spivey says no.

Spivey, a former state representative, said she thinks developing the area to such a density is "a crime" in the first place.

"And then to go and ask the people to pay so the developer can develop?" she said. "Using a penny sales tax to help certain areas develop is not parity."

Spivey was among a group of environmentalists who rallied against River Cove Landings in the 1980s, saying it would pollute the wetlands and bring more boats to waters frequented by manatees.

Spivey said she thinks growth should be limited by development's ability to pay for itself. The developer of River Cove Landings, she said, should pay the bills for either running the lines to Crystal River's water and sewer systems or adding septic systems.

Leduc said Del Guidice's company will pay its fair share through hookup fees and the sales tax. The sales tax increase, if it passes, would benefit many residents in the area in the long-run, he said, though some might not be pleased about having to pay connection charges.

River Cove Landings actually has development rights to hold 320 condominiums. The scaled-back total of 260, while still high by current standards, appears to have the county's approval.

Last month, County Attorney Larry Haag and Del Guidice's attorney, Clark Stillwell, revealed a draft of a development agreement for the project. The agreement still has to go before the county's planning board for review.

If approved, the agreement will be valid for 10 years, allowing Del Guidice to build up to 260 units provided he meets certain conditions, such as a height limit of 50 feet from the first floor. The condos are to be built on stilts.

Stillwell, who also serves as Crystal River's city attorney, represented that government in the recently approved interlocal agreement with the county, which lays out procedures for establishing special assessment districts and extending water and sewer lines outside city limits.

Stillwell said his dual positions as attorney for the city and the developer do not constitute a conflict of interest.

He said if he were still serving as the city attorney when the city decides to run a sewer line out Fort Island Trail, then he would need to step down as city attorney.

"Right now, it's just a hypothetical," he said.

Haag, for his part, said he doesn't think a lack of sewer services will be the development's limiting factor.

"Condos have traditionally not been best sellers in Citrus County," he said. "I don't know that the market's here for it."

Del Guidice, however, said demand is strong. Buyers for the next 10 condominiums have already spoken for the spots, he said.

Within a few months, Del Guidice said, he expects those condominiums to be finished.

"While we're doing those, we'll probably be starting another two or three buildings," he said.

Crystal River Isles also has secured a permit to build a 40-slip boat dock in place of the smaller dock that was ruined in the no-name storm of March 1993. Leduc emphasized, though, that the dock is not to be part of the River Cove Landings project and will be owned exclusively by the company.

Leduc said he and Del Guidice hope to finish construction within three years.

The sewage problem may be difficult to solve, Leduc acknowledged. But whether the solution comes in a central sewer line from Crystal River or an expansion of the development's package plant, he said, he knows the solution will come.

"We'll find a way," he said.

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