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Strongly held opinions split fans, foes

F. Blake Longacre looks at his plans for Halls River Retreat and sees a textbook example of "green development."

Water-saving fixtures and energy-efficient elevators. Environmentally friendly building materials, such as recyclable steel studs and roof trusses. All native landscaping that requires no fertilizers or pesticides. A central sewer lift station that will replace the old septic system.

But a different picture of the proposed 63-condominium complex emerges for Ron Miller, president of the Citrus County Audubon Society and chairman of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance.

The destruction of wetlands that pour into the Halls River, a state-designated Outstanding Florida Waterway. Four-story towers, among the tallest buildings in the county, piled on land that sits less than a foot above the water table. A popular manatee spot transformed into one of the largest marinas in Homosassa, with up to 20 motorboats docked on site.

Local Realtor Ernest Woods has said the county should be "rolling out the red carpet" for the developer.

River alliance member Winston Perry calls the project a "cancer" that will kill "Old Homosassa as we know it."

And the County Commission, which is scheduled to vote on the project Tuesday, is just as divided as the public. At a workshop on the project last month, Commissioner Jim Fowler said he couldn't think of a reason to turn down this "awfully beautiful project."

Commissioner Gary Bartell agreed that it's a beautiful project _ just an awful match for the environmentally sensitive site.

Hear two different people describe Halls River Retreat, and you might think they were talking about two different projects.

"From everything I've been able to gather," county Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said, "this is going to be a public hearing to remember."

Dollars and sense

Despite the divergent views on the project, there is no separating the environmental factors from the economic viability of Halls River Retreat.

Building a "green development" can cost up to 25 percent more than a standard project, engineer Troy Burrell said in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Environmentally friendly building materials are more expensive. And Halls River Retreat plans call for 21 multistory buildings, which cost more to construct, to minimize the amount of ground covered with impervious materials.

Add that to the higher construction costs in a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone, Burrell said, and "a 1,600-square-foot unit in Halls River Retreat will be over twice the average closed sales price of all residences sold in the Crystal River/Homosassa area over the three years ended Dec. 31, 1999."

So how do you make the $15-million project make dollars and sense?

The units will be under "shared ownership," a time share-like arrangement in which each condo is co-owned by six people who can spend up to eight weeks a year at the resort.

The opening price for each buyer: $80,000 for a second- or third-story "mezzanine" condo, or $90,000 for the fourth-story "penthouse" condos with vaulted ceilings and gable skylights, Longacre said.

Owners would also be charged around $2,000 in annual maintenance fees for the upkeep of the swimming pool, laundry facilities, clubhouse and other amenities.

The maintenance costs drive the necessity of 63 units, Longacre said. Although county staffers have recommended downsizing to 54 units to keep three buildings out of the wetlands, Longacre said fewer units would mean higher maintenance fees _ too high, he fears, for the project to remain saleable.

"The maintenance fees can only be so high or the dadgum thing will never work," Longacre said.

"I've done everything I could to make this project environmentally responsible," he added. "Let somebody tell me something other than, "I just don't want you to build there.' "

Making the tradeoff

But that is exactly what environmentalists are saying, because they believe the project is too intense for the environmentally sensitive property.

River alliance member Perry points to the numbers: Assuming four-member families use the retreat, the project will bring an extra 13,104 people (though not at the same time) each year to Homosassa and its fragile waterways and endangered manatee habitats.

Traffic estimates for the project place another 404 vehicle trips per day on the winding, two-lane Halls River Road, the only outlet to U.S. 19 for residents in Riverhaven and the rest of the Homosassa River's north side.

Environmentally speaking, Miller's main concern is that the water table there sits just 9 or 10 inches below the surface, allowing unfiltered stormwater runoff to make its way straight into the aquifer.

On a highlands site, a builder could dig retention ponds to hold stormwater runoff, the rainwater that picks up oil, grease and metallic impurities as it pours over a developed property. The impurities would be naturally filtered out as the water seeped through several feet of sand before reaching the aquifer.

But in the swampy lowlands at the Halls River Resort site, the land is too shallow for a traditional drainage ditch. Longacre's plans call for plastic-lined wet retention areas, landscaped with plants that should filter out stormwater impurities before the water eventually flows into the Halls River.

Longacre counts the 0.76 acres of wet retention areas among the new wetlands his project would create.

Miller fears that the plastic liners will not work, saying the liner in the ditch behind Home Depot on U.S. 19 came out over the summer. He also pointed to a study showing that wet drainage areas in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties exceeded safe levels of cadmium, zinc, magnesium and other metals, while failing to provide enough oxygen in the water for fish to survive.

Miller also said the county should refuse to allow development that destroys any riverine wetlands along an outstanding waterway like the Halls River, even if it's just the 0.22 acres of wetlands Longacre proposes to fill.

Wetlands help filter the water and provide a breeding ground for some creatures, Miller said.

"Would (losing) a quarter-acre destroy the west coast of Florida? No. You've got to be sensible about it," Miller said. "But the reason these rivers have been declared outstanding waterways is because the state recognizes that we have something special here, let's protect that and here are some rules for doing so."

Those rules include not allowing any impact to the outstanding waterway unless it is "clearly in the public interest." Miller said commissioners should not bend that rule now, lest they find themselves having to bend it again for future developers.

Longacre said he cannot avoid those wetlands, but his mitigation plan includes creating 0.20 acres of wetlands in the northeast corner of the property, once again linking several acres of inland wetlands to the Halls River.

That effort, however, does not impress Perry.

"The stormwater runoff alone will be counterproductive to anything he's trying to say is good for the area," Perry said.

And the green development concept?

"That whole argument is absolutely ridiculous," Perry said. "To destroy pristine wetlands using environmental products to build buildings _ what kind of tradeoff is that? It makes no sense whatsoever."