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Confusion clouds Halls River Retreat

But both sides of the controversial project are banking on a Jan. 17 planning board meeting to ferret out the facts.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

HOMOSASSA -- There's an old Mark Twain quote being thrown around Homosassa these days: "Figures don't lie, but liars figure."

It's how the people on both sides of the divisive Halls River Retreat debate are starting to feel about each other.

When it comes to the projections surrounding the proposed 54-unit condominium complex -- the turnover of time-share visitors, the number of new boaters on the Halls and Homosassa rivers, the extra traffic added to Halls River Road -- the developer and his opponents accuse each other of twisting the facts.

And each side sees the Jan. 17 hearing before the county's Planning and Development Review Board as its chance to set the record straight. The planning board will discuss the project at a 10:30 a.m. time-certain hearing in Room 166 of the Lecanto Government Building, 3600 W Sovereign Path, before the plans go to the County Commission for a final vote at a later date.

"It is my intention to take all of the concerns I am aware of, literally from (the newspaper) articles, the letters to the editor and my conversations with numerous people, and try to eliminate the myths that are being promulgated in an attempt to frustrate me," Halls River Retreat developer F. Blake Longacre said on Friday.

But members of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance say the fallacies are coming from Longacre's side. For starters, they point to the extra boat traffic the complex would bring to the rivers.

River alliance member Winston Perry estimates that 54 condos with four guests apiece would put an extra 216 people on the Halls and Homosassa rivers each week. Multiply that by 52 weeks and the number grows to 936 people per month or 11,232 people per year.

"This is the breeding ground for all the little fish and crustaceans. It's a major part of the food chain for the river's sustenance," Perry said. "When you plunk yourself right down in the middle of that and have 54 boats every week, close to 1,000 people a month, it's going to have a damaging effect on the river."

But Longacre said his project would only add about 18 boats to river traffic at any given time. Under his revised plans, the canal on his property would be lined with 18 boat slips -- 15 of them for boats owned by the condominium association for all visitors to share.

"The retreat will discourage retreat owners from bringing their own boats, so it will be more the exception than the rule if someone wants to bring their boat up there," Longacre said.

And he added: "With 15 boats for 54 units, it has nowhere near the impact that 54 houses down the river has," assuming each of those houses had its own boat.

Perry is not persuaded. "People who have that kind of money (the time-share prices would start at $80,000) are not going to be inclined to share boats with other families," Perry said. "They're going to bring their own boats and park them at the Riverhaven Marina or MacRae's or wherever."

Cross-eyed from the calculations? Boat traffic is just the beginning.

Other bones of contention include:

THE NATURE OF THE RESORT: Longacre describes it as a second home for people who would only use it for eight weeks out of the year. Each "fractional ownership" unit would have six owners who would take turns vacationing there.

Halls River Retreat would also belong to Interval International, a network of nearly 1,900 time-share resorts around the world. Each year a condo owner could trade up to two weeks of his entitled time at Halls River Retreat for a stay at another resort, allowing other network members to visit Halls River Retreat in his place.

That level of turnover, with new people coming and going every week, sounds more like a motel than residential condominium development to Ron Schultz, the county's property appraiser and a Homosassa resident.

"I own a condo in Pinellas County where transient rentals are prohibited (at that complex)," Schultz said. "Nothing less than six months."

While a residential condominium complex would have just a manager and a groundskeeper, Schultz noted, Longacre's plans call for at least 12 full-time employees. Those additional housekeeping, laundry and grounds workers suggest "a very, very intense use of the property," Schultz said.

But Longacre expects little time-share swapping, because he said most owners will want to spend their full eight weeks in Homosassa. He expects the complex to have a community feel, with the same faces returning year after year.

"A person spends $80,000 for the right to spend two months a year at Homosassa, and somebody isn't going to buy that and spend that kind of money if they are not the kind of person that wants to go to Homosassa," Longacre said.

TRAFFIC ON HALLS RIVER ROAD: Back when the plans called for 63 condos, a consultant estimated the complex would create an additional 404 vehicle trips per day, which would not exceed the traffic capacity of the two-lane Halls River Road. Now that the plans have been scaled back to 54 condos, the traffic impact would be even less.

The calculation was made using national trip generation data for residential condominium complexes. But critics say the calculation should have been based on the trip generation figures for motels or other short-term accommodations akin to time shares, which would suggest a greater traffic impact.

Longacre disagrees: "I totally believe there will be people who come and literally stay their two months at one time, which is no different than somebody that has a home who comes down for a few months each year."

RIVER NOT SO DEEP, BRIDGE NOT SO HIGH: The portion of the Halls River along Longacre's property is shallow. At high tide the water is 2 or 2 1/2 feet deep; at low tide the muddy bottom is sometimes exposed, Perry said.

The river's navigable channel runs about 6 or 8 feet deep, Perry said, and boaters who want to reach the Homosassa River have to duck under the Halls River Road bridge, which offers about 6 feet of clearance. These can be troubled waters for boaters -- particularly out-of-town visitors, he said.

"That's why the propeller business is such a big business down here," Perry said. "If you stray, you're going to run into the oyster beds and they'll chew you up real good. You have to stay in the channel, and it's not that wide."

Longacre isn't sweating the river's dimensions, though. He said his complex will have small boats, ranging from 12 to 18 feet long, that can easily navigate the channel and take boaters under the bridge. Once he removes a couple of feet of organic debris from the bottom of his canal, he said boats will have no problem passing from the slips to the river.

THE BOTTOM LINE: What would Halls River Retreat mean to the tax base?

Longacre said his project will take a piece of property worth about $500,000 and increase its taxable value "20 or 30 fold," pouring additional tax dollars into the county's coffers.

But Perry doubts the extra dollars would offset the expense of improving Halls River Road, which he believes would be overburdened by traffic from the complex. Nor would the money compensate the community for what Perry believes would be the deterioration of the river. "The cost/benefit ratio does not go in the county's favor," Perry said.

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