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River task force runs into fears and skepticism

The group intended to plan how to protect the Weeki Wachee. Then the politics of the river got involved.

Supporters of the fledgling Weeki Wachee River Task Force say the time has come to get serious about dangerous conditions they have witnessed on the water: namely, speeding motorboats, excessive litter, alcohol consumption and manatee harassment.

Seeking consensus on a list of environmental issues, their plan was to band together and come up with a plan to protect the river. Then, they would enlist the help of county officials and government agencies in backing stricter enforcement or, maybe, even tougher regulations.

But when word of the group spread to the community at large, critics saw an effort to railroad tighter restrictions for use of the river on an unsuspecting public.

The resulting clash has turned the spotlight on residential, political and business interests that often collide along the Hernando County coastline.

"The meetings have been politically charged," said Dawn Durham, an environmental planner with the county Planning Department. "We really haven't made much progress."

Organized in March, with the help of County Commission Chairman Paul Sullivan, the task force has met four times. The last meeting, held shortly before the September primary election, generated such rancor that little was accomplished, according to Sullivan.

Many people had heard there was a plan afoot to ban motorized boats on the river, a suggestion Sullivan denied outright on Tuesday.

"It's gotten blown into an issue that it was never intended to be," he said. "Our intentions are honest and meant to benefit the river and everyone who uses the river."

But for Roy Nevins, who lives on a canal off the Weeki Wachee, Sullivan's involvement on the task force, and his position as facilitator at the meetings, is suspect.

"I thought this was wrong for a county commissioner to head some meeting and be involved in that when you don't know whether it's really the view of the community," he said. "I don't figure it is a true representation of the whole cross-section of Weeki Wachee.

Sullivan, meanwhile, said the group is no different than any other citizen advisory board that reports to county officials. He added that representatives from several businesses as well as state and local agencies were asked to participate, including: the state Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Department, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Hernando County Sheriff's Office, Gulf Coast Conservancy, Hernando Environmental Land Protectors and the Hernando Dive Club.

"Unfortunately, what happened was that this worthwhile group of people were tainted as a group of extremists who were going to take away motor engines off the Weeki Wachee River, which was never the case," Sullivan said. He blamed the spread of misinformation on political maneuvering by those who oppose his campaign for re-election. "It's very frustrating."

Sullivan said the group is looking for a facilitator to conduct future meetings, the next of which is scheduled for 7 tonight at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Building at 4340 Calienta St. in Hernando Beach.

Nevins, who plans to attend the meeting, said he remains wary of the group's intentions.

"Everybody has gripes about what they think could be done to the river," he said. "You should start by enforcing the rules that you have in place and see what comes of that."