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I don't think we had all this in mind

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Citrus County's environmentally fragile coastlines were never supposed to be left this naked, ripe to be bulldozed by out-of-county developers interested only in making a quick buck.

That was the point of having a sensible growth management plan. That was why back in 1989, the state threw out the county's first effort, which tossed commercial zoning around like confetti and left waterfront areas unprotected.

State officials wisely saw through the ruse and said it was not going to allow business interests in Citrus to ruin their own county. We've learned from the sorry examples in Pinellas and other overdeveloped counties, they said.

County commissioners and others fumed at the time, saying the state has no right telling locals how they can develop their own county. Actually, we do, the state replied. If you can't control yourself, we'll do it for you.

Tom Pelham, then director of the Department of Community Affairs, sat in my office after a stressful day of wrangling with county officials and landowners. Citrus County's growth plan was the worst one he had seen, he said, and the state was going to make us its test case for managing urban sprawl and unchecked building.

After months of arguing, the county finally had a plan that passed muster. While commissioners grumbled, land development attorneys got busy finding loopholes for their clients.

The plan, we were told, would not stop growth but would focus it in areas that made sense. People could still build in coastal areas, but the concrete mountains common in cities south of here would never rise along our waterways.

On Tuesday, those long-ago assurances may melt away.

The County Commission will decide if an out-of-county developer can build 21 (yep, that's right _ 21) four-story time share condo buildings along Halls River in Homosassa. The board majority should smile and send the carpetbagger on his way.

Smart money, though, says the developer will get everything he wants.

Three commissioners have already indicated that a developer's right to build whatever he wants wherever he wants is more important than the public's desire to keep Citrus' waterfronts from being assaulted.

County planning staff and the planning board have urged the commissioners to say no. A vocal group of Homosassa citizens has pleaded with the commissioners to come to their senses.

On Tuesday, they will be ignored. Big money will carry the day.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Zoning was supposed to keep this from happening, but a loophole designation _ mixed use _ was slapped on this property years ago. It allows for this kind of project, even though common sense says it's not compatible with the surrounding area.

Many years ago, when plans were first being made for sewer lines to the areas west of U.S. 19, environmentalists protested that the infrastructure would open the coast for development along a state-protected Outstanding Florida Waterway. They were laughed at. Their dire predictions are now coming true, and no one is laughing.

The growth plan was so concerned about preserving the coast that a provision was inserted to create an extra hurdle before a project west of U.S. 19 could be built. That added layer of protection, commissioner approval, is now the Achilles' heel of the comp plan. If three business-oriented people sit on the commission, they can overrule the planning staff and the wishes of the people to make a developer happy.

It wasn't supposed to be like that.

Think about the future if this plan gets approved. The path will be shown for developers to build similar projects not just on that river, but on Kings Bay, the Tsala Apopka lakes, Lake Rousseau _ virtually any body of water here. Who cares what the zoning is? Zoning gets changed all the time, and the commissioners get the final say.

Developers will be able to build as high as they want, providing they are far enough back from the lot line. Today, it's four-story condos. Tomorrow, it could be 10-story buildings. As the county's environmental planner says, you can build the Empire State Building if you have a large enough lot.

Set aside the possibility that the county one day will be home to a wall of derelict buildings lining its coasts (ever try to sell a time share?). Just imagine if the units are filled.

Picture the scene when the next "no-name storm" blows through. That '93 storm brought an 8- to 12-foot wall of water up the rivers in only a couple of hours, stranding hundreds of people in their homes and forcing emergency workers to risk their lives on flooded roads trying to rescue the trapped residents. Now, imagine all of those people trying to get out on two-lane Halls River Road.

The commissioners' response probably will be to widen the road.

Think about all of the boats that will be added to the busy Homosassa and Halls rivers (the proposal calls for a long line of boat slips). Think about the chaotic traffic jams on the rivers, the fuel spills, the run-over manatees.

Yep, that's progress all right.

This is not a no-growth screed. I came here from somewhere else, I live in a house that a builder made, I know that developers and builders have a right to make a living. I know that growth is a fact of life everywhere in Florida.

But I also know that battles were fought more than a decade ago so that Citrus County would not be turned into an overdeveloped nightmare. The desire of the community, and state growth officials, to save Citrus from destroying itself was supposed to prevail over the wishes of a handful of moneyed interests.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.