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Refuge officials delay Kings Bay office addition

The wildlife refuge manager says he has heard "loud and clear" the concerns of residents about traffic.

The dispute over the proposed expansion of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge office was not settled at Tuesday's County Commission meeting, but residents were finally assured that the project would remain on hold until the agency met with neighbors and other affected organizations to discuss alternative sites.

"We're pleased," said Joan Ogle, the resident who launched the petition drive against the office expanding its Kings Bay site. "That's what we've been trying to get is some assurance that we'll be included in the discussions."

The refuge had planned to build a 1,000-square-foot addition to the house it uses on Kings Bay Drive to make room for more educational exhibits. The $300,000 renovation included plans to make the building accessible to the disabled and less flood-prone, refuge manager Jim Kraus said.

"It's not going to be a full-fledged visitors center," Kraus said. "We're just trying to make a humble effort to improve what we have."

But residents such as Ogle feared that an expanded visitors center would bring more traffic through the neighborhood.

Under fire from those residents and the Crystal River City Council, which passed a resolution urging the refuge to find another site, wildlife officials announced last week they would delay construction to review the project further.

The County Commission has no jurisdiction over the refuge; the wildlife office is within the city limits of Crystal River, and federal offices are exempt from local zoning laws.

But the commission, responding to one resident's request to take a stand on the issue, held a quasi-public hearing Tuesday to discuss the proposed expansion.

After an hour of emotional discussion, commissioners agreed on three points that will be summarized in a county resolution:

+ The county is against any federal agency "running roughshod" over a neighborhood just because it is exempt from local zoning laws.

+ The county encourages discussions among the refuge, neighbors and other agencies.

+ The expansion will not go forward until those discussions take place.

Although the commissioners acknowledged that the refuge could do whatever it wanted, they asked Kraus to consider other sites that would be more agreeable to the neighbors.

"The bottom line is, you have a bad location for the future," Commissioner Brad Thorpe added. "You need to work and get all of the stakeholders together and see if you can find a new place."

Kraus said the refuge was open to looking at other sites for the visitors center, although the agency does not have money now budgeted to buy land or build a new building. He also said the current Kings Bay site is the best place for wildlife officials to monitor the manatees.

"We've heard loud and clear what the concerns are," Kraus said. "We've heard it repeatedly, issue after issue after issue."