The fight is on for Citrus County's future.
And the battle lines are being drawn in the hardwood swamps of Homosassa, where a Clearwater developer proposes to build high-priced high-rises overlooking the Halls River.
Conceptual drawings for Halls River Retreat show the green roofs of 21 four-story buildings sprouting above the sparse tree canopy, the most recent visioning of condominium time shares in Citrus County.
Tax base boost or urban blight? Depends on whom you ask.
But the County Commission will hear plenty from both sides at a 5:01 p.m. hearing Tuesday in the Masonic Building in Inverness, before voting on the plans for the 63-condominium complex.
Supporters say the $15-million project will add to the tax base while attracting vacationers who will eat and shop here eight weeks a year, not more residents who will burden the schools or rely on other government services.
"I say it doesn't get much better than this," local builder Randy Caldwell told the commission at a workshop last month.
But critics like Winston Perry say the condo towers are just the tip of an iceberg that will sink Citrus County "faster than the Titanic."
"If this is going to happen in little Homosassa, just imagine what's going to happen on King's Bay in Crystal River, with 10-story condos that will blot out the night sky, or Lake Rousseau or the Tsala Apopka chain of lakes," said Perry, a member of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance. "We might as well kiss Citrus County goodbye as the Nature Coast."
More than a decision on the fate of 11 acres in Homosassa, the commission's vote Tuesday will be a defining moment for Citrus County, Commissioner Gary Bartell said.
"Any time you deviate from the Comprehensive Plan, you're setting up for future applicants to come forward with similar projects," Bartell said. "Nearby is 12 acres for sale. To the west of that property is a piece of property with 300-some acres, Nature's (Resort) Campground, that ultimately could come in for application for similar-type projects. Collectively what you would have is a total change in the character of that neighborhood.
"People need to stand up one way or the other and say, "Yes, this is how we're going to grow,' or "No we're not,' " he said.
Under the gun
The battle over Halls River Retreat was set in play, in part, by the county's decision in the late 1980s to create a catch-all zoning category of "mixed use" for a few oddball properties.
"We were under the gun to adopt the Comprehensive Plan and the future land use map, and we just had those areas that didn't fit in the proper (residential or commercial zoning) slots," county Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said.
One of those areas was the former Lenz family compound, the 11-acre property at the northwest juncture of the Halls River and Halls River Road. From 1948 to his death in 1977, the property was a weekend fishing camp and then a retirement home for Charles A. Lenz, a St. Petersburg man who insured circuses and carnivals through Lloyd's of London.
Lenz expanded the knotty-pine cabin on the property and built a caretaker's cottage and a boat house, according to his daughter, Sally Cox, who lives on a nearby Homosassa road named for her father.
He also built a terrazzo-floored pavilion with a 16-foot hearth and a full-service kitchen to host parties on the waterfront. Several of the buildings had organs he would play for his own amusement.
After Lenz's death, his widow, Olga, had the property rezoned so that it could become an RV park, possibly an extension of the Nature's Resort Campground next door, which Lenz had built in 1969. But the RV park never came to be.
When the county revamped its zoning to reflect the goals of the 1989 Comprehensive Plan, the Lenz property was among the misfits that fell into the "mixed use" category: lands that were once residential but moving closer to commercial use.
The designation allows everything from cemeteries to small retail stores to apartments, at higher densities akin to commercial districts. An old land use map for the county shows clusters of mixed use properties on the Withlacoochee River near U.S. 19, bits of the Homosassa waterfront, strips along U.S. 19 south of Crystal River, and scattered patches in Lecanto and along Lake Henderson.
Some of those sites include the property on U.S. 19 where Home Depot sprung up last year without requiring any public hearings, and the former Tradewinds Marina and Mobile Home Park on W Fishbowl Drive in Homosassa, where more than 70 pricey homes will replace the trailers abandoned this summer under an eviction notice.
F. Blake Longacre bought the former Lenz property in January for $528,000, according to property appraiser's records, after discovering the "unique" zoning on the land, he said.
"The (county's Land Development Code) said there should be no changes in the current zoning to allow that kind of development," the Clearwater developer said, referring to his plans to build 63 condominiums. "I've looked at some of the other property around, and I'm not really sure there's anything else that's suited."
With several mixed use properties drawing controversial projects _ and more mixed use lands still out there _ county planners are now revisiting those properties to see if a different zoning would be more appropriate.
"I think under the auspices of good planning, it's time for us to relook at that, and either bring those properties under the existing land use umbrellas of other districts, or look at the standards we've established and see how we deal with these mixed use properties," Maidhof said.
But, he added, "That's not to say we can retrofit things to deal with the condo project."
The proposed four-story condos on the Halls River epitomize environmentalists' worst fear: That the construction of central sewer lines in Homosassa would pave the way for hyperdevelopment along the waterways, despite assurances to the contrary from county officials.
"They lied to us," said Jim Bitter, one of the founders of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance. "They flat out lied to us."
Not so, said Bartell, the commissioner who represents Homosassa.
"I promised the citizens of Homosassa that it was my full intention to bring central sewers to that environmentally sensitive community to facilitate the cleanup of the problems of the past, not perpetuate growth," Bartell said. "If we follow the Comprehensive Plan and the existing Land Development Code, we will do just that.
"If you change the Comprehensive Plan in mid-ship and allow that type of development as this (condominium) application, you are defeating the purpose of what central sewers were brought in for," he said.
But Bartell is just one vote on the five-member commission. While Commissioner Vicki Phillips has also indicated opposition to the condo project, commissioners Roger Batchelor, Jim Fowler and Josh Wooten have indicated support.
Bud Allen, a seventh-generation Crystal River resident, said the project is exactly the kind of growth that Citrus County needs. The condos will pay about $150,000 a year in property taxes, he estimates, and bring middle- to upper-class visitors who will support local businesses.
"I was born and raised here," Allen said. "I left the door open for all the people to come in here now. Now those people are saying they want to shut the door behind them."
The same arguments were raised in the early 1980s, when a pair of controversial condominium proposals found their way to Citrus County. The plans for Kings Bay Village called for 10-story time shares near Crystal River, while the Tsala Apopka shores were the proposed site for six-story condos called Peppin's Moorings.
The county's Zoning Board of Adjustment voted down three different incarnations of the Kings Bay Village plans. Although the zoning board approved Peppin's Mooring, a circuit court judge nullified the board's action because the underlying development ordinance at the time was so vague as to be unconstitutional.
Just as both cases galvanized the local environmentalist movement 20 years ago, the proposed Halls River Retreat project has sparked protests from a new generation of nature lovers.
The editorial pages have been filled with letters opposing the project. Save the Homosassa River Alliance poured $575 _ about a third of its bank account _ into printing and mailing 3,000 fliers alerting residents to the project and urging them to oppose it.
Not all Homosassa residents, however, are weighing in against the project.
"If we don't grow, how are we going to be able to get an Outback (Steak House) in Homosassa or Crystal River?" asked Steve Maas, a mobile home salesman who lives a few blocks from the proposed condo site.
For others, however, the project is a bellwether for the future of a community known for its fishing villages, artist colonies and retiree homes.
"If they let this happen, next thing you know they'll do the same thing over here," said Denis Drury, a retiree who lives on the east side of the Halls River, directly across from the condo site.
"I'm selling if they let that in," Drury said as his wife, Lucy, nodded. "We won't be staying."
Do the Drurys have cause for concern?
South of the home they bought in 1990 sit five forested acres that real estate agents told them would never be developed because they contain wetlands.
Now it, like much of the vacant land in Homosassa, bears a giant "For Sale" sign.
_ Information from Times files was used in this report.