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    Week in review

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    Safety zone proposed for manatees

    HOMOSASSA SPRINGS -- Manatees would get their own vacation spot on the Homosassa River if a proposal from state wildlife regulators is approved.

    A proposed manatee protection zone, where boaters and swimmers will be prohibited at the Blue Waters of the Homosassa River, will go before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for consideration at its May 29-31 meeting.

    If all goes smoothly, the rule would be imposed this winter, from Nov. 15 through March 31, said Kipp Frohlich, biological administrator for the agency's Bureau of Protected Species.

    The no-entry zones are the result of a settlement the state reached with environmental organizations that sued the agency for failing to protect manatees.

    Hospitals stuck in paralyzing deadlock

    BROOKSVILLE -- Somebody get a diplomat -- stat.

    Mutual opposition is blocking one Hernando County hospital's move and another's open-heart surgery center.

    Hernando HealthCare is trying one last time to pressure competitor HCA-Oak Hill Hospital to drop a challenge to its proposed relocation of Brooksville Regional Hospital.

    The company, a division of Naples-based Health Management Associates, has launched an ad campaign that paints Oak Hill as the stumbling block to Hernando County receiving modern medical facilities.

    Hernando HealthCare's offer: The company will drop its opposition to Oak Hill's open-heart surgery center if Oak Hill will stop its appeal of the new Brooksville Regional.

    The Hernando County Commission has adopted several resolutions urging the sides to drop their appeals, most recently on April 9. But the individual companies ultimately must decide what to do, Chairwoman Nancy Robinson acknowledged.

    The state Division of Administrative Hearings is expected to open a hearing on the relocation issue June 3 in Tallahassee.

    Realtors hear pep talk for disputed parkway

    CRYSTAL RIVER -- A state road official had an easy sell Thursday when he made a sales pitch for the Suncoast Parkway to a group of Citrus County real estate agents.

    Although there is organized opposition from some environmentalists and growth management advocates to the proposed extension of the road into Citrus, state Turnpike District Secretary Jim Ely said the toll road will be needed to serve the growing region.

    Judging by the enthusiastic applause, the audience of about 130 Realtors agreed.

    While critics say Suncoast Parkway 1 has low ridership, Ely said daily vehicle trips have grown from 13,950 in February 2001 to 35,056 in December.

    Thousands of people have signed antiparkway petitions. They say the highway would unnecessarily damage the environment and hurt the quality of life just so developers can make big profits.

    To counter such objections, Ely pointed to the first-leg amenities: a 42-mile bike trail, wildlife crossings, preservation of natural vegetation and solar-powered motorist aid call boxes.

    "Certainly Suncoast Parkway 1 is a beautiful highway," Ely said. "It blends with the environment."

    Renaissance Festival dispute puts library plans in flux

    LARGO -- With the courts appearing to side with the Renaissance Festival at the moment, Largo commissioners delayed signing construction and design contracts for a new library at the festival site.

    An order issued May 3 prevents the city from entering into any contracts or leases that might hinder Mid America Festival Corp. from holding the festival for the remaining three years of its contract.

    Commissioners voted April 2 to end the festival's 23-year run in Largo so they could build a 93,000-square-foot library costing $22-million.

    Though stalled, the city still plans a fight. City Attorney Alan Zimmet is scheduled to appear in court May 23 to clarify the court order and possibly appeal.

    FAA frowns on city's high-flying airport plans

    ST. PETERSBURG -- The Federal Aviation Administration has told the city of St. Petersburg that grant contracts require Albert Whitted Municipal Airport to stay open until 2021.

    That stance could ground the city's high-flying plans to get rid of the airport and use the prime waterfront land for parks and redevelopment projects.

    "Albert Whitted plays an important role in the air space system, and we don't support any effort to close the airport," said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA. "The city is contractually bound under grant agreements to make it a public airport."

    Rick Mussett, city development administrator, said he did not think the FAA's strongly worded letters would put an end to the city's explorations.

    The city is still in research mode, and some are urging the city to go over the heads of FAA regulators if they continue to oppose the plans.

    In short ...

    TAMPA -- National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman visited political and business leaders in Tampa on Monday to plead for tax relief for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He noted that the hockey team is the only professional franchise in the bay area that contributed a significant portion of the costs to build its arena. The Lightning also is the only team required to pay its full property tax bill, and team officials say that's getting tough after losing $40-million over the past three years.

    CLEARWATER -- AutoNation and Sonic Automotive, two of the nation's largest auto dealers, are being sued in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, accused by customers of fooling them into buying inflated extended warranties. The dealers denied the allegations in the lawsuits, which seek class-action status.

    TAMPA -- State Attorney Mark Ober concluded Wednesday that the public access cable program The Happy Show -- featuring closeup footage of female genitalia -- is not criminally obscene. Ober also ruled that a later incarnation of the show featuring a sock puppet expressing its intentions to have sex with a cutout of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms does not constitute a criminal threat. A disappointed Storms said his ruling makes it "open season on me."

    Coming up this week

    On Monday, the Crystal River City Council will discuss making midnight the last call for alcohol sales. The law currently allows sales up to 2 a.m. "The earlier you shut down alcohol sales and encourage people to go home to bed, the less of a problem you'll have," police Chief Jim Farley said.

    The federal government is expected to argue that Mazen Al-Najjar, a longtime Tampa resident suspected of ties to terrorists, should not gain his freedom Tuesday despite having no charges against him. Al-Najjar's solitary confinement at a federal complex in Sumter County expires May 14. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has tried unsuccessfully for six months to find a country that will take Al-Najjar, the Palestinian father of three daughters who are U.S. citizens. Under rules set by the U.S. Supreme Court, Al-Najjar should be freed from detention unless the government can show that he is a danger.

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