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Die cast in Halls River showdown

A struggle that has included accusations, intrigue and even a hint of mystery could reach a turning point on Tuesday.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

HOMOSASSA -- F. Blake Longacre may be an accountant by training, but the salesman in him comes out when it's time to talk Halls River Retreat.

Longacre has spent the past year or so selling the proposed condominium project to the permitting agencies, county planners and even the Citrus residents who tuned in to a locally produced television show Friday evening.

"I don't want something that's ugly," Longacre said, as an artist's rendering of his proposed four-story buildings flashed on the screen. "Don't you think that's attractive?"

All of that talk is leading up to the ultimate pitch Longacre will make Tuesday evening, when his proposed 54-unit time share project comes before the County Commission for a vote.

And when he makes his case, it will meet the objections of hundreds of neighbors and environmentalists who haven't bought his assurances that Halls River Retreat will fit with Homosassa.

"There is so much building in such a small area, the thing is just packed," said Ron Miller, president of the Citrus County Audubon Society and the Save the Homosassa River Alliance. "He's shoving the buildings up to the edge of the wetlands."

Both sides will get to air their views Tuesday evening, when the commission will decide whether to approve the developer's plan.

What happens after that is anyone's guess.

From the eleventh-hour revisions offered at the last commission hearing in November to Lewis Ranieri's recent enlistment in the opposition effort, the Halls River Retreat project has taken too many twists for anyone to predict the outcome.

But there are three main issues that will shape the debate:

The Swiftmud permit. County Commissioner Josh Wooten wants to postpone the vote on Halls River Retreat until the challenges are resolved to the developer's environmental resource permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"The validity of the permit is a key component to whether this project is compatible environmentally to the Halls River," Wooten wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to the Citrus Times.

"While this development appears to conform to county code, I need a firm resolution from the regulatory agencies charged with protecting the river before I make a decision."

However, Wooten has just one vote. Can he persuade at least two other commissioners to join him?

The zoning and vested rights issues. Enter the attorneys, who will argue that the property's mixed use zoning and presumed development rights are invalid.

Looking at the history of the family compound and the intention of the Comprehensive Plan, the project's foes believe the county erred years ago in zoning the property for mixed use, a catchall category allowing up to 20 residential units per acre.

County planners believe the zoning was justified, saying a map shows the site was once part of Nature's Campground.

If the opponents can show the county made a zoning mistake years ago -- and that is a debatable point -- has the passage of time made the issue moot?

The compatibility question. It may be the deciding issue, if recent history is a guide.

Last month, the county's Planning and Development Review Board voted 6-1 to recommend the County Commission turn down the project, even though the developer had scaled back his plans as county staff had asked.

Their stated reason: compatibility, or in this case, the lack of it.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a very sensitive environmental area and (the project is) not compatible with that area or Citrus County," board member Miles Blodgett said.

But the County Commission has the final say. Will this project fit with the commissioners' view of Homosassa's future?

Permit wars. Last year, it was one of Longacre's best arguments. When environmentalists complained about his project, Longacre said his plans met the environmental standards of Swiftmud and the Army Corps of Engineers, the agencies that had already permitted the project.

So the critics turned to those agencies and questioned their judgment.

The Save the Homosassa River Alliance and four individuals filed a formal challenge last month to the project's environmental resource permit from Swiftmud. The permit allows for the filling of some wetlands, the creation of boat slips and the construction of a shallow stormwater drainage system.

The river alliance says the project will destroy wetlands, allow stormwater runoff to drain into the river and increase boat traffic on the Halls River, damaging the Outstanding Florida Waterway.

Longacre counters that his project was designed with nonpolluting materials and a drainage system that will treat stormwater runoff before channeling the water back into the river. He also says he will restore a key strip of wetlands that will allow several acres of wetlands to once again communicate with the Halls River.

But it won't be up to Longacre to defend the permit.

The state's Division of Administrative Hearings will schedule a date for an administrative law judge to hear the case. The river alliance will argue against the permit, and Swiftmud will defend its decision to grant it, district spokesman Michael Molligan said.

After reviewing the voluminous record on the case, the judge will make a recommendation to Swiftmud's governing board, which would then decide whether to uphold or revoke the permit, Molligan said.

A separate challenge filed by the Citrus County Audubon Society was rejected because the group failed to show how it would be adversely affected by the project, Molligan said.

The group has until Feb. 19 to file an amended claim, which Audubon president Ron Miller said he plans to do.

While Wooten wants to wait on the outcome of the Swiftmud challenge before voting on Halls River Retreat, those involved in the challenge want to see the commission move forward with a decision Tuesday.

"I don't know that a continuation does anything, because I certainly cannot do anything without a (Swiftmud) resource permit," Longacre said. "I certainly am not asking for approval for anything that would not be approved by the Southwest Florida Water Management District or the Army Corps (of Engineers) or any of those."

"There is sufficient other evidence to make a decision here," added Jim Bitter, cofounder of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance.

The mysterious map. A mysterious, undated map in the county files seems to hold the key to the unique -- and critics say erroneous -- zoning of the 11-acre site.

This map appears to be the reason the site was zoned over a decade ago for mixed use -- allowing up to 20 units per acre, which makes Longacre's project possible -- instead of low intensity coastal and lakes, like much of the rest of Homosassa.

The freehand sketch, issued by the now-defunct Black & Cannon Realty, shows the site as part of the larger Nature's Campground property to the west. It is not clear whether the map was a sales document or a master plan that received county approval.

Often these kinds of informal drawings passed for site plans in the 1970s and 1980s, Community Development Director Chuck Dixon said.

When the 1989 Comprehensive Plan and 1990 Land Development Code blanketed much of the county in new zoning designations, the mobile home parks and campgrounds in Homosassa were given the label "mixed use" because they contained a blend of dwellings, bait shops and marinas.

The proposed Halls River Retreat property was also zoned for mixed use, probably because the Black & Cannon map suggested the site was part of the campground's master plan, Dixon said.

But there is no other evidence to indicate that it was.

The property was used as a family compound from the time insurance salesman Charles Lenz bought it in 1948 to his widow's death in 1991. Lenz created the neighboring Nature's Campground, but those 580 acres were divided among several different owners after his 1977 death while his wife continued to live at the family compound.

A 1980 survey of Nature's Campground specifically excludes the Halls River Retreat site from campground, said Carl Bertoch, an attorney representing an ad hoc group of condo opponents called Protect Our Waterways.

(The group is headed by Joanne Bartell, wife of County Commissioner Gary Bartell. Mrs. Bartell has said she is fighting the project on behalf of herself and her children, not her husband.)

Why does the distinction between the campground and the family compound matter?

While mixed use may have been valid for the campground, Bertoch believes that zoning should not have covered the 11-acre compound where Longacre now plans to build.

"It could have been an innocent administrative mistake at that time: Why don't we straighten this out and line this up?" Bertoch said. "Nobody anticipated that what may have been an arbitrary squaring of a line would result in the arguments we are having today."

If there was a problem with the zoning, however, the time for objections was in 1990 when the zoning decision was made, said Gary Maidhof, the county's director of development services. Challengers had a 30-day window to appeal the zoning of any property, he said.

County staff does not believe the property's mixed use zoning was in error, given the information available at the time, Dixon said.

That said, Dixon added: "It's my professional opinion that mixed use on vacant properties was not a good idea, and I believe current staff would have done it differently."

There is one more twist to the mysterious map's tale. Bertoch found another version of the Black & Cannon map that shows the compound as a parcel separate from the campground, supporting his contention that the two properties were separate. He wonders if the map on file with the county is an altered version of that one.

"This gives me some concern, and it should give staff some concern," he said.

The compatibility question. Last month, the county planning board heard 31/2 hours of arguments about this project, including the environmental complaints and concerns about the property's zoning.

In the end, however, it was not those technical arguments that carried the day.

"I'm not a lawyer, so I let the lawyers worry about that," planning board member David Langer told the Times last week, referring to the zoning debate. "My concern was the compatibility, the lack of compatibility with anything around there."

Public opinion seems to side with Langer and the other planning board members who voted against the project.

The county has received thousands of petition signatures and letters opposing the project, enough correspondence to fill two 3-inch binders. When the Save the Homosassa River Alliance last week sent 6,300 fliers encouraging west side residents to voice their opposition to the project, the commission offices received more than 135 phone calls over four days.

Their messages are the same: four-story time shares do not fit in Homosassa or Citrus County.

The developer disagrees. Longacre envisions Halls River Retreat as a kind of second home where owners will be allowed to spend eight weeks each year under a "fractional ownership" arrangement. Homosassa is filled with other seasonal homes and short-term lodgings, as well as tourist attractions, he said.

Because he has met the county's other requirements -- removing three buildings from the riverine wetlands, scaling back the boat slips from 20 to 18 -- Longacre believes he should be allowed to move forward.

"I've jumped through every hoop I've been asked to jump through and made every compromise I've been required to make," he said. "I feel as the property owner I have a right to build on my land what I choose to build, too."

At the last public hearing in November, commissioners Roger Batchelor, Jim Fowler and Josh Wooten sympathized with that position. They granted Longacre a continuance so he could bring back revised plans that would meet the county's code.

"If it meets the plan, it meets the plan," Fowler told the Times last month. "Now comes the issue of compatibility, and that's an issue for the five county commissioners to decide."

Fowler said commissioners should consider whether the area is a "pristine residential community" -- is it filled strictly with single family homes, or does the community include a mix of mobile home parks, businesses and tourist accommodations, too?

But commissioners Gary Bartell and Vicki Phillips have said the project's size and density are key parts of the compatibility equation. While Halls River Retreat is a nice project, it is proposed in the wrong area, both commissioners said at the November hearing.

"If you look to the surrounding areas, there is nothing like this project for it to be compatible to," Phillips said at that hearing. "It sticks out like a sore thumb."

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