Casino boat questions keep coming

Published Aug. 27, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

At an isolated marina that once housed the Crystal River Yacht Club, Harry Schmidt approached the freshly painted white gate Monday with a question plenty of people are asking:

"Do you know when the boat's comin'?" asked Schmidt, a retiree who takes occasional gambling trips to Biloxi, Miss. He said he is eager to see a casino boat in Crystal River.

Those who are not so eager to have gambling ships in local waters look at the yacht club improvements, consider SunCruz's confidence that it will begin operations soon, and then direct more questions at City Hall.

So, as Schmidt said, when is the boat coming?

"We are at the start of the beginning," City Manager Roger Baltz told council members and a few casino boat opponents at a City Council meeting Monday night. "No permits have been issued."

What's more, Baltz explained, City Attorney Clark Stillwell has told Baltz not to issue any permits until the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have permitted the project.

The DEP has questioned whether the owner of the former yacht club, River Marina Enterprises Inc., which has leased the property to the SunCruz line, owns the submerged land where the gambling ship would dock. Baltz said those questions must be resolved before River Marina can receive a city permit.

In its application with the city, River Marina Enterprises seeks permission to add an asphalt driveway to accommodate a shuttle bus that would bring passengers to the yacht club from Crystal River Mall. The city has reviewed the application twice and deemed it incomplete both times, Baltz said.

City staffers expect River Marina Enterprises to file an updated application soon.

The yacht club was annexed into the city a few years ago, but the city's comprehensive land use plan was never amended to include the site. As a result, county land use regulations still apply to the property.

County staffers have reviewed the site plan and deemed it incomplete. A technical review of the plan by the city staff will begin once a complete application is submitted, Baltz said.

Monday night, council member Ron Kitchen asked Baltz and Stillwell to describe the permit process for city residents who have questions. Kitchen said he has received more phone calls on the gambling boat issue than any other since taking office.

He said he is concerned about SunCruz's behavior in working with the city. SunCruz erected a fence last week without a permit, and Baltz on Monday asked the company to take it down.

The SunCruz IV, the 90-foot, 150-passenger vessel slated for Crystal River, sailed into the yacht club dock for an hour two weeks ago despite DEP warnings not to moor the boat without permission.

"It seems to me that they're setting a pattern of contempt for the law," Kitchen said.

Kitchen also questioned whether the council could have a role in stopping the boat from coming to Crystal River. "I've been told as an elected official there's nothing I can do. Period," he said.

Stillwell described the county's appellate procedure for granting permits, which allows property owners within 500 feet of the yacht club to appeal the process before a county hearing officer.

Meanwhile, SunCruz is making waves elsewhere along the North Suncoast.

On Saturday, Paradise of Port Richey, the company that owns the SunCruz casino boats and operates out of Port Richey, sailed one of its vessels into Tarpon Springs.

Tarpon Springs city staffers first heard of the company this year when SunCruz attorney Larry Crow inquired about docking the boat. City Manager Costa Vatikiotis said he was surprised to see the boat in town.

"It's not going to be a very easy journey for them," Vatikiotis said. "It's contrary to our port's character, with the sponging industry and other marine fisheries. We're going to proceed very cautiously."

_ Times staff writer Christina Headrick contributed to this report.