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Resort coming, town is warned

Change happens, developer Peter Spittler told more than 300 residents Monday night.

Whether the town chooses to negotiate with Izaak Walton Investors LLC, the group will build multistory residential resort units on the Withlacoochee River, he said.

"In essence, we are going to proceed with the project here," the Cleveland architect said. "Change does happen."

Most residents weren't particularly receptive to that message. Some groaned, others grumbled. One anonymous dissenter even stood outside the meeting dressed in a devil costume, complete with a grotesque swirling tongue.

Critics of the project said the Inglis mayor, in a nationally publicized stunt, drove the devil out of Inglis and right into Yankeetown.

But despite their numbers - residents packed the Yankeetown School gymnasium - the developers were undeterred.

"I understand you get comfortable in a situation, and then something changes," he said. "But Yankeetown's been changing since the day it was founded."

Spittler then showed dubious residents PowerPoint images of Yankeetown through the ages.

He described the Izaak Walton Lodge as "the heart and soul of Yankeetown" and said developers planned to build the project around the historic structure. Slides he showed of the 175-unit development largely mirrored those that had been circulating around town for several weeks.

Though Spittler promised authentic, Cracker-style old Florida architecture, residents said the pastel drawings looked more like Key West.

"This is a cartoon at this point, a concept," Spittler said, adding that the project would go through a number of iterations.

Developers want community input, he said, which is why the Town Council should accept their recent proposal to enter into a development agreement.

"We want to work with the community to create something unique," he said. "I've talked with lots of people, sitting around campfires, at peoples' tables."

The suit-clad Spittler said he even attended the recent community Soup-a-thon to address residents' concerns.

Audience members chuckled.

"These property owners are going to be able to develop their land; you can't prohibit that," said interim Town Attorney David La Croix at the meeting's opening. "But if you negotiate a development agreement, you can get a better deal for the city."

With such an agreement, both parties can put their needs on the table, Spittler said. The developers will want some zoning changes to accommodate their vision. The town is desperately in need of new water and fire facilities, which Izaak Walton Investors might be able to help secure, he said.

The developers already planned to build a wastewater treatment plant on 12 acres they acquired.

If the town refuses to cooperate, Spittler said, residents might end up with a less appealing development.

"At the end of the day, we are going to proceed," he said. "We have made over a $1-million investment, put contracts on the properties and closed on some."

If they enter into negotiations, developers and Town Council members will determine factors such as height, density, color and design together. Otherwise, Yankeetown might get "walls of buildings," he said.

"So, you're threatening us?" audience members said.

After giving his presentation, Spittler addressed questions written on index cards, including "Have you ever sold snake oil?" and "What if you build it and no one comes?"

Some residents worried that Yankeetown would become another Indian Rocks Beach, where developer Jim Sherwood, who is involved in the Yankeetown project, put a number of properties under contract and never built. Sherwood Partners LLC is being sued by two parties for breach of contract.

Spittler told the audience that developers have researched Yankeetown for more than a year, consulted with all relevant state agencies and taken thousands of photos. They have no intention of abandoning an unfinished project, he said.

"Our plan is to design, engineer, build and operate" the project, he said. "I'd like to retire here."

Residents asked whether the buildings would be timeshares. Spittler said about 135 would be residential resort units, which could include hotel accommodations and fractional ownership properties.

Addressing concerns about noise and entertainment, Spittler said, "Our intention is not to create a bar scene in Yankeetown."

When one resident asked what the community could do to stop him, Spittler had a concise reply: "Nothing."

The Town Council will vote on the request to enter into a development agreement during its first meeting in March, Mayor Joanne Johannesson said.

After seeing the initial plan, she said, the developers have a lot of work to do.

"But I'm worried" about not pursuing the development agreement, she said.

"The way our ordinances and comp plan are written now, they could put up 40 aluminum buildings as long as they meet the requirements. It would look terrible," she said.