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Commission, retreat from condo plan

The Citrus County Commission will consider a proposal Tuesday to allow a developer to erect 21 four-story buildings on the banks of the Halls River in Homosassa.

Without exaggeration, this project, or more specifically the precedent it would establish, could do more to permanently alter the county's landscape than the Crystal River Nuclear Plant did when it was built in 1979.

The commission should flatly reject the 63-condominium Halls River Retreat development for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one also may be the most compelling: Neither the project's scale nor its placement meet the basic standard of being a good fit in the community.

Clearwater Developer F. Blake Longacre wants to build the multistory time-share community on 11 acres that used to be a family compound on Halls River Road. It would include 20 boat slips, a clubhouse and a modern sewer system on 1,860 feet of river shoreline. Longacre paid more than a half-million dollars for the property this year, in a deal that was put together by local real estate broker Kevin Cunningham. Longacre hopes to sell each condo to six separate owners for $80,000 to $90,000 each, plus $2,000 annual maintenance fees.

At $15-million, the project itself is upscale, and if it was being considered for a part of the county that is zoned for high-density, multifamily residences, or in a commercial district, it would be a welcome addition, both to potential home buyers, retailers and the tax rolls.

But that is not the case. Instead, the plan is to build on the shores of one of the state's most protected waterways, in an area that includes wetlands, and is just about a foot above the water table, which connects directly to the aquifer. The buildings would dwarf every other nearby structure, destroying the vista of neighbors as well as wildlife habitat.

The only reason this project is even being considered is because the acreage in question was zoned "mixed use" in the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan in 1989. That was a convenient catch-all for undesignated parcels then, and it should have been re-evaluated and reclassified during the past 10 years. Because that didn't happen, it opened the door for an intrusive development such as this one.

The Planning and Development Review Board, the usual authority on these matters, rejected the proposal. But because the project lies in the flood zone west of U.S. 19, the County Commission gets final say.

But make no mistake; if this project is approved, the ramifications could stretch across the county to other areas that are unfortunate enough to carry the "mixed use" zoning designation. That includes lakes and rivers in the eastern and northern parts of the county, and other coastal areas in Crystal River. Multistory buildings, perhaps even high-rises, could replace manatees and water recreation as the county's drawing cards.

Commissioner Gary Bartell, who opposes the condo project, has framed the choice very well: This is a pivotal moment for Citrus County. It is a call for our elected representatives to stand and be counted. The lines have been drawn and each commissioner must decide whether to preserve the county's rural nature and fragile ecology, or to preserve the special interests of developers who have scant regard for anyone who is not a paying customer.

Either Commissioners Roger Batchelor or Josh Wooten is expected to cast the swing votes on this issue. Both profess their love of the environment. As an accomplished fishing guide in the coastal community, Batchelor should have a particularly keen insight into how misplaced projects such as this one will forever change what makes Citrus the heart of the Nature Coast.

As for Wooten, he was elected to office a little more than a year ago on a platform that drew heavily on his desire to protect Citrus County's natural beauty. This is an opportunity for him to prove that was more than a crowd-pleasing mantra.

The commission should not allow the developer to use approvals he has obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District as proof that his project is environmentally sound. Those agencies' responsibilities are limited to technical compliance with the law. They reach no conclusions about the appropriateness of the project, or whether it complies with the growth management plan.

And that plan is very clear about coastal development. It prohibits the "dredging and filling of wetlands or open water to accommodate water-related and nonwater-related uses." The state also specifies that no activity should be allowed on an Outstanding Waterway that will denigrate the quality of the river unless it "clearly is in the public interest."

Clearly, this project does not meet that standard. The public interest in 63 time-share condos is infinitesimal.

If the commissioners approve this project, they might as well mark the occasion by setting fire to the growth management plan and using it to send smoke signals to developers everywhere: "For Sale."