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Crystal River abuzz as deadline nears on land

Six weeks ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection was finalizing its land deal on the Crystal River Yacht Club property. The offer was made, the paperwork submitted, a deadline set.

"Today was the day that we were supposed to receive a contract back from the seller," Jerry Adams, a state land acquisition agent, said Feb. 10. "We're expecting it any day."

Adams is still waiting. So is Mayor Curtis Rich, who is working with a group of investors hoping to open a restaurant at the site.

So, too, is SunCruz Casino, the Port Richey-based gambling boat company that says it also has offered to buy the property.

And so are residents who want to know what is moving into their neighborhood.

"We want that feeling of safety, that feeling of neighborhood, that feeling of peace when we walk around that neighborhood," said Hugh Adkins, an Indian Waters resident who spoke to the issue at Monday night's Crystal River City Council meeting.

Each is waiting for April 1, the deadline yacht club owner Anthony Marino set for his decision. After six weeks of postponed deadlines and conflicting reports of who is interested in buying the yacht club, the likelihood of a gambling ship docking in the Crystal River remains unclear.

Yet, even if the casino boat never arrives, public discussion of the issue has already had an impact. At the council meeting, Rich made an impassioned plea for city residents to take his word that there is no casino boat company offer for the land.

A handful of residents spoke against gambling at the meeting, and gambling opponents have placed the issue on the April 14 council agenda.

The mayor's wife, Vangie Rich, said she has fielded what she calls "harassing calls" at home from casino boat opponents.

"When the phone rings my heart jumps to my throat because I'm afraid it's someone else going to bite my head off," she said Monday.

Council members have said this issue has generated more phone calls than any other. The mayor has challenged newspaper accounts of continuing casino boat interest in the land.

SunCruz spokeswoman Tracy Luepkes first said last week that her company had made an offer on the property. Rich, insisting Marino is not considering an offer from SunCruz, suggests that the company fabricated the offer to generate publicity.

Neither Marino nor his attorney, Clark Stillwell, will say whether Marino is considering an offer from a gambling boat operation.

In the meantime Adams, the state land acquisition agent, says he is confident that Marino will decide to sell to the DEP. He said he thinks building a parking lot and other expenses likely will dissuade other prospective buyers.

"We have been promised a decision by the end of the month," Adams said. "We're very optimistic that we're going to get the deal done."