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Locating ramps proves tough

Three months ago, a 77-year-old man drowned after the car he was riding in drove off a county road, down a county boat ramp and into the Homosassa River. Minutes later a newspaper reporter arriving to cover the story took a similar path into the river and, though he had to be rescued by emergency personnel, was unharmed.

Neighbors in Homosassa report that similar accidents have happened sporadically at the ramp, located at the end of S Cherokee Way next to MacRae's bait shop, for the past 30 years. But it was the unusual two-punch nature of the Oct. 30 accident, combined with the death of Bob Romaine of Hernando, that led county officials to make things safer.

"Because of that unfortunate situation, it did get some people to think, "Gee, is there some way we could do that a little better?' " said Tom Dick, the county's assistant public works director. "We thought, "Are there some situations in any way similar to that circumstance where a roadway that's advertised as a public boat ramp exits into the waterway itself, and if there are those other situations, let's see what can be done to improve those situations.' "

But in Florida, where high-and-dry ground easily gives way to lakes and wetlands, locating all spots where county roads end in water _ including places that have been unofficially used as boat launches by neighbors or government vehicles for years _ could prove difficult.

It's the spots not marked on maps or publicly advertised as boat ramps, like an old boat-launching area at the end of Aroostook Way off Orange Avenue in Floral City or an unmarked ramp in the Woodland Estates neighborhood of Crystal River, that could prove the most dangerous.

"You have to look at the history of county boat ramps to really get a feel for the difficulties we have as a government," said Gary Maidhof, the county's development services director.

"In some cases a boat ramp is specifically built for that purpose. Many of our boat ramps are older, and many times they were donated by developers or good-hearted people.

"It was often very much cheaper to run a road down to the end and make it a boat ramp," Maidhof continued. "That accomplished a couple things: drainage, and it made it easy for people to get to. But it also creates an unsafe situation."

Two days after the accident, new warning signs were posted at the end of Cherokee where the water meets the road. "Road ends here," they say. Additional signs were added several yards in front of the ramp, warning of a dead end ahead.

The attorney for the Romaine family has informed the county that the family intends to sue. The attorney, Lora Wilson, declined to comment last week.

County officials then turned their attention to other public boat ramps around Citrus. They located about a half-dozen other ramps configured similarly to the one in Homosassa, where a county road ended abruptly with a boat ramp and, of course, water.

Those ramps, from Goldendale Avenue near Dunnellon to Turner Camp Road north of Inverness, were treated similarly with new signs that give motorists multiple warnings of a boat ramp ahead. More lighting was also added at some ramps as an additional safety feature.

Romaine's death was not unusual by Florida standards.

Ten years ago, when a towing company arrived to pull a man's pickup truck out of the Alafia River in Hillsborough County after it accidentally rolled down a boat ramp, a diver found a virtual graveyard of underwater cars, including one with a body inside.

Neighbors advocated closing that ramp at night.

In 1991, one man was killed and another critically injured after they drove off a boat ramp and into the Intracoastal Waterway off Clearwater Beach. As the car floated away from the ramp, a nearby resident heard one of the men scream: "We've got to get out. We've got to swim."

Most likely, such ramps would not be permitted today. Mike Zavorsky, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection's Tampa district, said DEP might send an engineer back to the drawing board "if we receive something that appeared to have some sort of what we consider to be a hazard or something we were not comfortable with."

Citrus is looking into building a new boat ramp on the Cross-Florida Barge Canal on land that would be supplied by the state Office of Greenways and Trails. Such a ramp would go through the rigors of modern boat ramp permitting.

Three years ago, when the county's aquatic services division took over the boat ramp program, Aquatic Services director Mark Edwards' staff did a comprehensive survey of every ramp in the county. It specifically identified which ramps needed repairs, more parking or additional lighting in the parking lot.

Edwards noted that the plan also called for closing three of the county's underutilized and poorly maintained facilities. The ramps at East Cove and Broyhill Estates and one in Withlapopka Isles were closed as a result.

The five-year plan called for spending more than $350,000 on boat ramp improvements. At the Homosassa ramp where Romaine died, for instance, the county planned improvements that would make the ramp better for boaters, such as lengthening the ramp and adding more parking.

The survey did not address whether roads ending in boat ramps are safe.

Dick, who formerly headed Edwards' department, said several county roads end in water, but most are too out of the way for the county to reasonably worry about someone driving into them. He asks, "Where do we draw the line?

"I know of a lot of roads that dead-end into the waterway, and we've used those sites for setups for our (aquatic weed) harvesters," said Dick, adding that even though those areas are not widely known, someone could conceivably happen upon them in poor weather conditions like the ones the two drivers encountered Oct. 30 in Homosassa.

"They're not advertised and not used by the general public."

Citrus County boat ramps

1. Goldendale Boat Ramp

2. Spruce Drive Park & Boat Ramp

3. Fort Island Gulf Beach Boat Ramp

4. Fort Island Trail Park Boat Ramp

5. Hernando Boat Ramp

6. Turner Camp Boat Ramp

7. Ozello Boat Ramp

8. Homosassa Boat Ramp

9. Eden Park Boat Ramp

10. Withlapopka Boat Ramp

11. Mason Creek Boat Ramp

12. Duval Island Boat Ramp

13. Trails End Boat Ramp

14. Chassahowitzka Boat Ramp