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State may buy Weeki Wachee land

Weeki Wachee Spring, home of mermaids, birds of prey and bison, never was intended to be a tourist destination.

The city of St. Petersburg bought the land about 60 years ago, thinking it would be a future water source. But logistics, money _ and, in time, mermaids _ put an end to that.

Now the state wants to buy 454 acres that includes Weeki Wachee Spring to ensure the land remains in public hands. It also would keep the mermaids in business, at least until the popular tourist attraction's lease expires in 2020.

"There are very few places like it in the northern hemisphere," said Bill Sims, chief executive officer of Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp., which runs Weeki Wachee Spring. "It's an area that should be protected and preserved forever. The state has been extremely successful preserving land like it."

Buying agents with the state Department of Environmental Protection's Conservation and Recreation Lands program have been looking at the Hernando County property for years. The state owns many major springs, including Homosassa Springs and Silver Springs.

Two state appraisers have spent months trudging through wetlands and studying the attraction to determine the land's market value. State appraisals are confidential, so officials would not say what the state will offer to pay the city.

Weeki Wachee is a gem: The spring, 100 feet across, discharges 170-million gallons of water every 24 hours and has become the center of a popular tourist attraction that opened 50 years ago. Weekiwachee is a word used by Seminole Indians that means "little spring" or "winding river."

State senior land acquisition agent Jerry Adams said he would send a written offer to the city next week. The state wants to buy and preserve 142 acres at the southeast corner of State Road 50 and U.S. 19 around the Weeki Wachee Holiday Inn; 101 acres in the intersection's northwest corner; and 211 additional acres that include the spring.

"It's always been one of our top priorities," Adams said. "We're buying it because it is a special resource and to make sure it continues to be accessible to the public. I don't know why it's taken so long."

City administrative services officer Don Crawford will take the offer to the mayor, who likely then will present the proposal to the City Council. The city will hire two appraisers as well, standard procedure when land is valued above $200,000.

"There's a whole lot of things that need to be valued, the lease, the attraction, some other opportunities up there," Crawford said, adding that the city's appraisal process could take at least two months.

Negotiations would begin when the city's appraisal is complete. The council would be required to approve the deal.

On and off for two decades, the city has talked about what to do with Weeki Wachee Spring and the surrounding community and wilderness. A study released in 1983 suggested that the city sell its holdings because the spring could never be developed into a cost-effective, reliable water source.

St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer said this week that previous city councils have been reluctant to entertain offers of selling the land. Council member Larry Williams echoed that thought, saying he would be cautious about giving up the city's right to a water source.

"I personally would rather see us _ if it's a fair price _ use that money for something we have here rather than a spring in Hernando County that residents don't have access to," Fischer said.

Adams, the DEP official, said the state has no specific plans for the land. The state would honor Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp.'s lease, which doesn't expire until 2020. Beyond that, Adams said, the state would consider renewing the lease, bidding for another attraction or turning Weeki Wachee Spring into a state park.

Hernando County leaders, who for years have urged the state to buy the land, cheered the proposal.

"That's exciting. That's really neat," County Commissioner Pat Novy said. "This is additional protection, perpetually."

_ Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.

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