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Instead of marina, developer plans to build a campground

Even after more than a dozen years of trying, developer Jim Eyster still has been unable to win approval from government agencies to build a marina with hundreds of slips on the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

So, instead, he and a group of about 65 shareholders are pushing forward with a plan to build a campground _ with cabins and spaces for recreational vehicles _ on 46 acres off U.S. 19 just south of the barge canal.

At Eyster's invitation, about 25 people, including local politicians and business leaders, stepped through heavy rain Monday morning to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the shelter of a newly built pine cabin _ a structure similar to cabins that Eyster says will be built inside the campground.

Before Eyster and other investors in Citrus Recreational Marina Inc. can get started building what is to be called the Nature Coast Landings Campground, they must first secure approval from the County Commission for a zoning change from an industrial designation to one that would allow recreational use. Eyster estimated that the zoning change will be approved within several months.

Judging from the support expressed by officials at the ceremony, Eyster could be right.

Commission Chairman Jim Fowler said the campground will offer a much-needed outlet for nature-based tourism. Commissioner Gary Bartell also attended the ceremony, along with other officials, including U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, Crystal River Mayor Curtis Rich and state Sen. Charles Williams.

Williams told the crowd standing in the cabin's darkened interior that he was embarrassed that Eyster was unable to get a permit to build the marina, even after years of trying.

"It's a shame," he told Eyster. "I know you spent a lot of money and spent a lot of time and had a lot of heartaches."

This year, the state Department of Environmental Protection rejected two environmental permits for the proposed marina, finding that its planners had not proved that underground drinking water would be protected.

On Monday, though, Jack Maynard of the department's Office of Greenways and Trails said the agency supports the campground, which would be west of the 135 acres where Eyster and others have envisioned building the marina.

Maynard, an administrator for public outreach and technical services, said the campground would be an asset to the state's 110-mile Cross Florida Greenway, a strip of wild land beginning along the never-finished barge canal.

"This is what we want to see happen on the greenway," Maynard said: private sector ventures that offer public access to nature in the state-owned lands.

Preliminary drawings for the campground show 86 spots where people could stay in either cabins or RVs, a recreational lodge, a pool and a recreation area, all within a short walk from the edge of the barge canal.

Once the campground is built, Eyster said, he plans again to put his efforts toward trying to build a marina. But for now, he said, the focus is on the campground, which he estimated will cost "a couple of million" dollars to build.