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Two proposals face opposition

Among the neighbors and environmentalists expected to pack the County Commission chambers this evening to fight the proposed Halls River Retreat condominium project, a few folks like Billy Mitchell will be pulling double duty.

First, Mitchell will argue that the proposed 63-condo complex in Homosassa runs afoul of the comprehensive plan and is too intense for the environmentally sensitive area.

Then, the Crystal River retiree will offer those same objections to a proposed 189,256-square-foot shopping center just south of Crystal River.

"I think the county and the developers have a wonderful opportunity to set the stage for future development," Mitchell said. "They don't have to go for the maximum density and maximum intensity."

The County Commission is scheduled to vote on both projects tonight, after public hearings starting at 5:01 p.m. in the Masonic Building in Inverness.

While the proposed time share condos in Homosassa have garnered considerable criticism and media coverage lately, Mitchell said Heritage Development Co.'s plans for a shopping center on U.S. 19, north of Scotty's and across from the Crystal River Airport, are equally objectionable.

The front portion of the 37-acre property, a 400-foot-wide band running along U.S. 19, is zoned for commercial use. The Cleveland-based developer is asking the county to rezone the adjoining 9.14 acres, another 350-foot-wide strip, from low-density residential to general commercial.

The deeper commercial zoning would allow for a larger _ and, developers say, more attractive _ shopping center, consisting of one large building toward the north, a smaller row of shops toward the west and a freestanding restaurant or store fronting U.S. 19.

No specific retailers have signed up for space yet.

"If the county sees this as something they don't want to see in the county, I will have to go with what the current zoning allows me, which is a strip mall," Heritage land planner Chris Herzner said Monday.

"I can tell you that's not going to be as pretty as what I propose to do. I hate to do that, but if that's all they're going to allow me to do, then that's what they're going to get."

But critics like Mitchell, who lives in the neighborhood west of the site, say the low-lying property has too many wetlands and sits too close to the aquifer to be an appropriate spot for large-scale commercial development.

County planners and the Planning and Development Review Board have recommended denial of the rezoning request.

The parking lot would pave over about 0.77 of an acre of natural wetlands, while the north building would cover about 1.56 acres of manmade wetlands, created over the years as an old borrow pit which has filled with rainwater and vegetation.

The property sits in the 100-year flood plain and the coastal high hazard area, where storm surges can be expected during a Category 1 hurricane. It also lies outside the planned service area and the commercial infill area, the zones where the county steers major development.

With just a few feet between the surface and the aquifer, the property is too shallow for digging traditional stormwater retention areas. Instead, plans call for funneling stormwater into a small, clay- or plastic-lined retention pond where impurities would settle to the bottom.

The water would then flow to the rear third of the property, where it would be absorbed into the ground. A raised berm would keep the water from flooding into the adjacent neighborhood.

Herzner said his company has spent "a lot of money" designing the project around the concerns of residents and county planners, at one point adding a stormwater filtration system that the planning board criticized as "experimental."

"If it's such a problem and they don't want to be an experiment, I will not spend the extra money (on the filtration system) and provide that extra protection," Herzner said.

Mitchell said the problem is not the details, but the scope of the project itself. The developer wants the County Commission to expand the commercial zoning in an area that, under the comprehensive plan, should see only light development, he said.

"What happens is that these developers attempt to convince the commissioners that there's some justification for amending or bending our comprehensive plan laws," Mitchell said. "That's how it happens, in small increments and simple concessions. Then one day we find ourselves in the same congestion and ugly landscape as our sister counties to the south."

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