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SUN SETS ON A BATTLEGROUND

A neighbor has made it her mission to try to save a tract of land from being privatized and neglected.

Libby Way has a special place where she can wind down at the end of the day.

From the tiny sliver of land, she and her neighbors frequently gather to watch dolphins and birds frolic along the waterfront and to enjoy an unobstructed view of the setting sun as it slides toward the Gulf of Mexico.

As peaceful as it appears, the 20-foot by 100-foot parcel at the end of Sunset Vista Drive has been a battleground for several years. And Libby Way has been in the thick of it, rallying effort after effort to keep the place open to the public.

Years of erosion caused by wind and waves have taken their toll, leaving a rutted spoil of mostly weeds and rocks.

"It used to be a nice little spot with a seawall where you could sit with a glass of wine and just relax," said Way, who has lived about 100 yards east of the parcel since 1972.

Despite her pleas to county officials over the years to restore the area to a usable condition, very little has been done, she said.

Add to that the disputes over the years with the owners of the property adjacent to the sliver of land.

They wanted the county to vacate the property and give it to them so they could make the necessary repairs to blunt the erosion.

Way, 57, is getting weary of her fight for the public's interest. "It's just been very frustrating," she said.

"But there's a principle at stake here that goes beyond just having a place to watch the sunset,'' she said. "It's public land that's supposed to be cared for by the county, and it's being ignored to the point where it's ruined."

Way's efforts date back to just after the infamous "no-name" storm that struck March 13, 1993. The 13-foot storm surge left much of Aripeka devastated and heavily damaged most of the homes in Way's neighborhood.

It also all but erased the small point of land at the end of Sunset Vista Drive.

Way said the county assured the neighbors that the parcel would be restored. Richard Stauffer, who has lived on the street since 1969, says what they mostly got was lip service.

"They brought in some fill and dumped it, but that was about it," Stauffer said. "It wasn't even clean. Mostly it was a bunch of broken concrete and tile."

Another neighbor and fellow sunset watcher, Barbara Hauser, complained that the county has seldom taken much of an interest in improving the area.

"They treat us like a redheaded stepchild," said Hauser. "They didn't even get around to paving the road until a few years ago."

Shortly after the freak storm, a protracted legal battle over the parcel began when Ernest and Clorinda Franklin, then the owners of the property adjacent to it, decide to build a three-story home.

Their appeal to the County Commission to vacate the public land was initially granted, then overturned. The Franklins sued and the matter eventually wound up before the 5th District Court of Appeal, which ruled in 1996 that the original request to vacate had not been properly advertised.

Though the Franklins eventually built their home, their request to vacate the public parcel was again rejected by the County Commission.

As usual, Way was at the forefront of the fight. She rallied neighbors and friends to sign petitions, met with various county department heads and even retained an attorney. Although her favorite sunset perch had been saved, Way said the county continued to ignore its deteriorating condition.

Eleven years later, Way learned that Dr. Michael Ort, the present owners of the Franklin house, were to appear before the County Commission to request that the parcel be vacated.

Ort, an ophthalmologist whose practice is in Winter Haven, said he made the request because he was concerned that lack of proper erosion control would endanger his house in the event of a large storm. In exchange for the county property, he agreed to pay for construction of a new seawall and other reinforcements, plus landscaping.

In consideration of his neighbors, he said he would even provide limited access to the waterfront for sunset watching.

Way was wary of such an offer. Although she had met the Orts and found them to be personable, she was suspicious of their motives. Sure, the offer of public access to the property was nice, but how long would that access be given? And what would happen to the agreement if the Orts sold their house?

When the Orts appeared before the commission July 26, Way and her neighbors were there to oppose the deal. The Orts' request was denied.

Ort believes he is misunderstood by his neighbors. He says his intent was merely to protect his home and property and not to keep visitors out.

Though he says he has no animosity toward his neighbors, Ort argues that they may not fully appreciate his lack of privacy. He tells of looking out his windows to see strangers gathered on his dock smoking marijuana. A number of times he has had his driveway blocked by sunset visitors.

Said Ort, "We love the area, but living where we do comes with a price. I was trying to be a good guy about it. But they don't seem to see it that way."

Commissioner Rose Rocco thought Ort's request was reasonable. In the end, though, she voted to deny Ort's request, citing the matter's legal history.

"My hope is that someday they can all come to some kind of agreement that will work for everyone," Rocco said. "There are some valid points to all sides of the argument."

Meanwhile, Way continues to explore other options for improving the parcel. But she is unlikely to get her wish, according to Steve Whitaker, assistant director of the department of public works.

"About the best we can do is to bring in some rock and riprap to shore up what's there," Whitaker said. "Beyond that, it gets expensive, and I don't see that as a route we want to take right now."

Way says she was less than pleased by the fix, and she plans to appeal the matter to the commission. She said that based on the tax records she looked up online, her immediate neighborhood brings in more than $127,000 in annual property tax revenue.

"We should be getting more for our money," Way said.

"You can drive around anywhere in Hernando County and see beautifully landscaped parks with hardly anyone using them. Here, there's a place that people appreciate and visit all the time, and look at the condition it's in."

Logan Neill can be reached at 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

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