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A Times Editorial

Single vote carries long-term impact


© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

Crossroads. Pivotal juncture. Defining moment.

Catch-phrases abound, yet none conveys the magnitude of the issue facing the Citrus County Commission on Tuesday when it revisits the issue of a proposed 54-unit condominium development on the Halls River in Homosassa.

The time has come for commissioners to confront the controversial 11-acre condo project, the Hall's River Retreat, at its core, and decide whether F. Blake Longacre's ambitious time share resort fits in the neighborhood.

There are other concerns, including whether state agencies will grant the environmental permits Longacre needs to proceed, and if the property is properly zoned. But they are peripheral. The central question is compatibility, a subjective criterion the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan leaves for the County Commission to interpret.

If the commissioners use common sense, they should agree that allowing 18 four-story buildings on the shores of an Outstanding Florida Waterway threatens not only the character of a long-established neighborhood, but that of the entire county.

Why? Because approving this project sets a precedent for other similarly zoned waterfront tracts in the county, parcels that were intended to be protected under the county's comprehensive plan. Allowing this project to rise makes a mockery of that document.

Opponents have raised serious and well-researched questions about the validity of maps, surveys, ownership records and other material used by government agencies to permit the project so far. Commissioners are being asked to give credibility to slipshod work by these agencies by approving a project that is based on questionable information.

In a more narrow vein, the project is perilous for coastal Citrus County because of the effects it would have on the fragile ecosystem. The developer envisions clusters of tall buildings -- the construction of which can't help but impact the Floridan Aquifer -- as well as a large swimming pool, spa and parking on property laced with wetlands essential to the health of the adjacent river, and an 18-slip marina on a channel so narrow that two medium-sized boats could not pass each other safely.

Recognizing those problems and the obvious incompatibility, the Planning and Development and Review Board recently recommended against the project. The planners, acting in an advisory capacity, should be commended for not only reaching a sound conclusion, but also for their willingness to look beyond the question of whether the proposal meets the technical requirements of the county Land Development Code. In doing so, they set an example the commissioners, who have final say on the project, should emulate.

On Tuesday, a huge responsibility rests with Commissioner Roger Batchelor.

Of the five members of the board, two -- Gary Bartell and Vicki Phillips -- have been steadfast opponents of the project. They recognize that while the landowner has certain rights, he doesn't have carte blanche to build whatever he sees fit on sensitive lands. They also have heard the voices of the people, thousands of whom have said loudly this project is not a fit for this neighborhood.

Two other commissioners have taken a different view.

Jim Fowler has been true to form in supporting the developer's efforts, no matter what the impact on the environment. In an interview with the Times editorial board, he telegraphed his vote by saying that, on the matter of compatibility, his standard will be: Is this now a "pristine" riverfront community? Apparently, he will point out that there are various other businesses and homes in the neighborhood, so what's the problem with allowing a forest of time shares to join them?

Josh Wooten, whose pre-election commitment to protecting the environment is eroding before our eyes, will push to delay Tuesday's vote until after a permitting problem with the Southwest Florida Water Management District is resolved. Beyond giving him some political cover for a yes vote, it's hard to see what is gained by such a delay.

Wooten has already demonstrated support for the team behind the project, many of whom contributed to his 2000 campaign. If the vote is taken on Tuesday, expect him to vote with Fowler.

That leaves Batchelor as the deciding vote.

Rarely in an elected official's political life does such a moment come along, when a single vote carries such long-term ramifications. Approve the project and you set in motion not just this assault on the environment, but you open the door for many more. Vote no, and you send the message to developers and the community: Citrus County truly cares about its environment. Yes, you can build here, but not whatever and wherever you please.

Batchelor, a professional fishing guide, has spent countless hours drifting silently off the coast of Citrus County over the years. He's seen spectacular sunrises and sunsets, watched osprey and eagles soar above the saw grass, chuckled as mullet jumped for no apparent reason. He must now decide if he really wants to steal all of that beauty from future generations simply to enrich some developers.

The people have spoken -- thousands have signed a petition against the proposal, and hundreds have called or written the commissioners to express their opposition. Those are impressive numbers and represent a level of public interest seldom seen in any county, much less one this size.

The commissioners cannot pass on this one, waiting for some other agency to give them a cue -- or an excuse -- to decide the fate of Citrus County's coastline. The public's trust rests squarely on their shoulders, and most residents expect the commissioners to bear the load, not buckle to pressure from a few whose vision of the county is obscured by dollar signs.

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