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Tranquil tubing trips run into trouble

The property where tourists exit the Rainbow River is being sold. Options for a new drop-off point cause friction among residents who resent intrusion.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


DUNNELLON -- Jack Dennis calls them boomers, the thunderstorms that rumble through Florida during the summer. There is beauty in this fury and, for an instant, relief from the heat.

But from his home overlooking the Rainbow River, Dennis has come to loathe boomers for they bring strangers to his door. "They just stand there shivering. And they want to use your phone and bathroom."

The tourists who wedge themselves in giant inner tubes to float down the river have always been a mixed blessing. Thousands from across the state and beyond visit each year, boosting the economy. "Tubers" can be a pain, too, as Dennis or any other waterfront homeowner will attest.

Controversy has built for years and now the issue has reached a critical juncture: Marion County has lost the use of land that for nearly two decades served as a public exit point for tubers.

Many people agree the exit, near the County Road 484 bridge, is too far downstream. The trip from KP Hole could last four hours or more, which is why many tubers opt to get out of the cool water early regardless of thunderstorms. They do not always act like guests, trudging through private property and groveling for rides.

What people cannot agree on is where to put a new exit until the state can develop a site on the east side of the crystal clear river, which runs for 6 miles before dumping into the Withlacoochee River.

Several proposals have emerged only to meet stiff opposition from residents fearful that the temporary will become permanent.

"Everybody knows there needs to be a tuber exit, but nobody wants it in their backyard," said Jerry Vaughn, a Dunnellon businessman with a plan to create a tuber trolly on railroad lines that run on the west side of the river.

"I've dealt with a lot of controversial issues and this ranks at the top," said Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul. "It's been a highly charged, emotional issue."

Though the season does not get busy until May, public tubing has been effectively banned since Nov. 30. The Orlando businessman who plans to buy the property, Sam Meiner, has offered to lease it for $24,000 a year. The previous lease was provided at no cost.

But with controversy swirling around a few alternatives, the county may have no choice but to negotiate with Meiner. "We believe there is an amicable solution," he said.

Nearly everyone involved wants this arrangement to continue until a long-term solution arises. Of all the possible alternatives, the one closest to Jack Dennis' home has generated the most interest.

The state Office of Greenways and Trails owns land there and it is close to SW 190 Avenue, which leads to County Road 484.

Dennis has mounted a campaign to defeat that plan. To make his points, he led journalists on a tour of the river last week.

"This is a terrible, terrible place to have it," he said from a pontoon boat. He pointed to bass beds near the shore. Later, on land, he called attention to gopher tortoise burrows on SW 190 and said the intersection at CR 484 is dangerous.

State officials and some residents contend the area is better than Dennis makes it seem but say they have backed off due to lack of interest.

The exit would be half the distance of the 484 bridge, giving a decent tuber run, said Bob Ballard, the state Department of Environmental Protection's deputy secretary for land and recreation.

That raises questions about the permanent exit. It would be further upstream from Dennis' house and cut the trip from KP Hole even further. Would a family from, say, Miami drive to the area for an adventure that lasted less than two hours?

The state exit would be placed in Rainbow Springs State Park, 3 miles north of Dunnellon on the east side of U.S. 41. Ballard said the idea would be to get it as close as possible to abutting property known as the Griffitts tract. That would ensure the tuber run is not too short and keep a distance from an upstream subdivision, Sateke Village.

"If they construct a parking lot and concession stand here, it could be a hangout for undesirables," said Sateke Village resident Art Ross.

Some Marion County residents want the state to purchase the Griffitts land, which is more than 300 acres of wetlands and uplands, including 1,800 feet along the river.

The state is interested, but its offer falls far short of what the owners are asking, officials said. According to Dennis, chairman of the Rainbow River Advisory Council, the state appraisal is $1.7-million and based on an agricultural land designation. The Griffitts family is seeking roughly $2.5-million.

While the state already has committed to the project -- partly due to the efforts of state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River -- it could be two years before the exit is ready. The plan, estimated to cost at least $500,000, includes a boardwalk, paved parking area and restrooms.

Once built, the amenities could put Marion County out of the tuber business. Last year, some 7,000 people rented tubes at KP Hole, generating $57,000 for the county. Hundreds more brought their own tubes.

The state has plans to rent tubes from an area north of KP Hole. That way, both the entrance and exit would be on the same side of the river -- the east. That would make transportation easier and give people who want a longer float an opportunity to fit a second float in their day, Ballard said.

"To someone looking from the outside, this might seem like an easy thing to resolve," said David Jowers, manager of Rainbow Springs State Park. "But it's been a struggle for many years. It's time to make a decision and move forward."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com.

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