Beyond the oaks
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- They pulled up to the stately white building on a nippy February morning. The woman on the intercom buzzed them through the locked front door and into the cavernous lobby.
They had come to the offices of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc., which sponsors archaeological digs in Mexico and Central America. Shielded from traffic on U.S. 19 by a curtain of large oaks, the imposing building has gone mostly unnoticed for years -- not unlike its owner, Lewis Ranieri.
But they did know him by reputation. He was a featured character in Liar's Poker, the 1989 bestseller about the high-flying 1980s on Wall Street, where Ranieri rose to vice chairman of Salomon Brothers. He was portrayed as a financial genius who made a killing on a new class of bonds, and the prankster who, grinning, held a flaming lighter under an unsuspecting employee's crotch.
"It was enjoyable to make more money than the rest of the firm," Liar's Poker author Michael Lewis wrote of Ranieri, "but it was sheer delight to make more money than the rest of the firm at the same time you spent half your day playing practical jokes on your employees and smoking big fat cigars."
Now he had invited the Homosassa trio to his foundation office to discuss the time-share condominium project the County Commission had just approved. The 54-unit complex would be built a mile up the Homosassa River from Ranieri's place.
The three leaders of the anticondo groups did not know what to expect. They had heard Ranieri opposed the project, but they knew the man in the book, and they knew he used the same attorney and the same real estate agent as the man they were fighting.
A portly man with thick glasses and a trim, gray beard descended the mahogany staircase and led the group upstairs to a conference room decorated with Mayan and Aztec artifacts.
He took the seat at the head of the table and launched into a diatribe about the Seven Rivers system, an estuary that includes the Halls and Homosassa rivers. Like the condo opponents, he said he did not want this rural pocket of Homosassa transformed into another nondescript, overdeveloped coastal community.
He spoke passionately of how their little river was part of something global.
"He didn't just talk about the Homosassa or Halls rivers. Lew described the big picture to us," said Protect Our Waterways leader Joanne Bartell, a self-assured woman with a mastery of the project's technical details.
"He knew more history and had more knowledge of the Seven Rivers system than I had ever heard or read before. Lew talked about the cascading effect that would be produced by the overuse of any of the rivers on the Seven Rivers system. He always talked about the system as a whole, the rivers' effect on the Gulf of Mexico, the gulf's place in the world. It was an amazing conversation."
Ranieri asked how he could help.
The answer, of course, was money.
A half-mile upstream from a fork in the Homosassa River, 11 wooded acres abut the shores of the Halls River, a shallow tributary that glints with bass and bream.
The river is lined with the same cypress trees and large oaks that Winslow Homer captured in a series of watercolors nearly 100 years ago. Less abundant are the holly bushes that gave Homosassa its Seminole Indian name.
This is old Florida, all right. It's also big business. The Homosassa River and its wintering manatees are feature attractions in what tourism promoters call Mother Nature's Theme Park.
Four years ago, a Clearwater developer named F. Blake Longacre tagged along when his marine science professor friend came here to check on scallop-restocking efforts. Longacre found the area "too beautiful not to give it a shot."
He had developed lucrative time-share projects on the sandy beaches of Daytona and the tropical shores of the Cayman Islands. Why not the hardwood swamps of Homosassa?
A rustic area of campgrounds and marinas, mobile home parks and residential neighborhoods, Homosassa has not been touched by the high-rises that have taken over Florida's southern coast.
But now the Suncoast Parkway has cut the drive to Tampa to little more than an hour. And the spread of central sewer lines has made possible multifamily projects that septic tanks could not support.
Longacre found the perfect waterfront site for his condo project on Halls River Road, a winding two lanes that follow the north side of the Homosassa River.
By a quirk of zoning, the property could have up to 20 residential units per acre, a far cry from its use as a weekend fishing retreat and retirement home for St. Petersburg insurance salesman Charlie Lenz.
Lenz died in 1977 and the property passed to his widow. She died in 1991 and it passed to her son, who sold it to a real estate holding company. It sat idle for a decade.
Longacre formed Halls River Development and paid $528,000 for the land in January 2001. His plans ultimately called for 54 time-share condos with six owners apiece. Each unit would go for $80,000 to $90,000, depending on the view, making the project worth about $27-million.
Neighbors and environmentalists who objected said the new sewer lines were supposed to clean up the river by removing old septic tanks, not pave the way for hyperdevelopment of the coast.
But county planners said their hands were tied. The zoning for such a project already was in place.
More than 3,000 residents signed petitions and letters opposing the plans for Halls River Retreat. They said the four-story buildings might punch through the water table a foot or two below the surface. They didn't want hundreds of out-of-towners and their motorboats descending on this manatee haven.
"It was the tip of the iceberg as far as high-rise development coming to Citrus County," said Winston Perry of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance. "I think that many, many people who have moved to Citrus County from down south were trying to get away from that waterfront, high-rise clutter that Clearwater and St. Pete are known for.
"With Citrus County being the Nature Coast, we're doing everything we possibly can to keep its pristine beauty," added Perry, an Inverness consignment shop owner with a booming voice. The condo project "wasn't indicative of what the Nature Coast is all about."
Longacre, a former accountant who grew up in Winter Haven, dismisses his critics.
"They have their house and their pool and their boats on the river, and they don't want anybody else there, regardless of their constitutional rights as citizens of the United States."
He pointed to his initial stamps of approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"The science is quite clear here. There is not any negative impact that is going to occur as a result of this, and that's all there is to it. There's more negatives from the fertilizers on people's yards in Riverhaven (a residential community in Homosassa) than from Halls River Retreat."
Things culminated Feb. 12, at a tense 51/2-hour meeting of the Citrus County Commission. In the face of overwhelming public opposition, Longacre needed three of the five commissioners to approve the development order.
Opponents provided evidence of the shallow water table, the wetlands and the manatee habitat that could be damaged by construction. A water board member said he doubted the central water system could serve a dozen four-story buildings and still maintain enough water pressure to fight a fire down the road.
Longacre kept his presentation short. He said every standard that county planners and permitting agencies had set, he had met. What more could he do?
Commissioner Jim Fowler, a self-made millionaire who owns a construction equipment rental business and two quick-lube garages, trumpeted Longacre's property rights. "We do not count noses in this process," Fowler told the roomful of frustrated condo foes. "We stand up for constitutional rights."
Commissioner Roger Batchelor, a retired Florida Power technician who works sometimes as a charter boat captain, landed in Longacre's corner. "This thing is more compatible with that area than some of the things that exist there today," he said, alluding to Homosassa's rundown RV parks.
After some wavering, used car salesman Josh Wooten cast the deciding vote in favor. Opponents weren't surprised. He is a longtime friend of the real estate agents for the project, Kevin and Karen Cunningham.
The nay votes came from Commissioners Vicki Phillips, a retired secretary, and Gary Bartell, a former contractor married to Protect Our Waterways leader Joanne Bartell. The commissioners said the project was a bad fit for the area and a violation of the county's Comprehensive Plan, which limits growth in sensitive coastal areas.
The Save the Homosassa River Alliance and Protect Our Waterways filed legal challenges; the public took out its frustration in the fall elections.
In the primary, a newcomer came within 27 votes of unseating condo supporter Fowler in his bid for a third term. Bartell, who voted no, was overwhelmingly elected to his fourth term.
Ranieri tries to escape his New York financial empire once a month. He gets out on the Homosassa River, often with his teenage daughter, and catches redfish and grouper. Once he reeled in a 100-pound tarpon.
In the fall of 2001, friends who "know how touchy I am about the river" told him about the condo controversy.
Two weeks before commissioners voted, Ranieri sent his vice president of manufacturing at Pro-Line Boats, Johnny Walker, to relay his feelings to the commission.
"He feels a project like this is going to have a very negative effect on the quality of the Homosassa River," Walker said. "He (is) also concerned about it and whether it (fits) with the image of the Homosassa River and the neighborhood. He feels it doesn't."
The news caught environmentalists off guard. Ranieri talks passionately about egrets and ecosystems, but he is also a developer and one of the county's largest landowners.
"I thought the reporter got it wrong," said Helen Spivey, who has fought battles over the years against overdeveloping the Citrus coast. "Gee, whiz. That's not the side I expected him to be on. It was a big surprise. People do change, and then of course at times we misread them."
In fact, Ranieri's environmental roots run deep.
People's surprise was understandable, though, because if the project were defeated, Ranieri also stood to lose. He owns numerous tracts near the 11-acre condo site with the same dense zoning. Limit the amount of development allowed, and their value drops for Longacre and Ranieri alike.
"So be it," Ranieri said.
After commissioners approved the condo project, Ranieri invited three of the leading opponents to his Mesoamerican foundation's offices in Crystal River.
Jim Bitter, a member of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance, had a tough time picturing Ranieri on his side. Two years earlier they had butted heads when Ranieri's Pro-Line Boats applied for state and county grants for a new factory. Bitter called the nearly $1.8-million in approved grants "welfare for the wealthy."
When the two met that cold February morning, they kept those differences in the past.
The local activists focused on the project's details: the measurements on the site plan, the minutiae of zoning laws. Ranieri reminded them of the big picture.
"You've got seven rivers running into the gulf, all fed by springs, and they create this extraordinary plume of freshwater out into the gulf," Ranieri said in an interview. "It's one of the most vibrant and still among the most pristine systems in the United States."
Ranieri questioned how Longacre's project could proceed despite growth management laws that limit coastal development, and despite the Halls and Homosassa rivers' designation as an Outstanding Florida Waterway, which bars development that would harm water quality.
"The fact is, the river is either an Outstanding Florida Waterway or it's not. In other words, either this is a precious commodity and is going to be treated like it, or not. And you can't tell me putting that many people in a small place on the river that is already hard pressed is good for the environment, good for the river or good for the people of Florida.
"Remember, I own a lot of land, and I understand what the value is of developing it. But at some point, you've got to make choices, and it's time we made choices."
Money to fight back? No problem, Ranieri said.
Bitter picked up a $5,000 check from Ranieri's Crystal River office the next day. Ranieri also said he would match every dollar raised by the Save the Homosassa River Alliance. That contribution ended up near $30,000. After the project was approved, membership swelled from 60 to 1,100.
Ranieri hired his own legal heavyweight -- Tallahassee lawyer Dan Stengle, former general counsel for Gov. Lawton Chiles and the state Department of Community Affairs -- to assist Carl Bertoch, the pro bono attorney for Protect Our Waterways.
If Ranieri's goal was keeping his favorite vacation spot unspoiled, it might have been cheaper to find another vacation home.
"Why do I care about the river?" Ranieri asked.
"Because in the summer you can sit in your garden, surrounded by butterflies, and all of the sudden the river turns silver because the mullet make a run.
"And you see it's like somebody drawing a silver blanket across the river. There's so many of them, the river literally turns silver and shimmers in the sun.
"Why wouldn't you fight for that place, you know what I mean?"
Like countless others, Orville "Lucky" and Helen Wright retired to Florida two decades ago to escape the harsh northern winters. The Brooklyn couple found their slice of paradise in Beverly Hills, a middle-class retirement community in central Citrus.
"He's a good fisherman and a very good boat operator. He could be his own boat captain if he wanted to be," said Mike Locklear, Ranieri's longtime fishing buddy.
"He really loves this river and I think he's like a lot of other people that moved down here. They want to see it left like it was when they got here. We don't want to see our county turn into something like Pinellas County."
Born in Brooklyn to a family of Italian chefs, Ranieri aspired to be one, too, but asthma forced him out of fume-filled kitchens.
Instead, he followed the classic route from the mail room to the top. An English major at St. John's College, he started part time as a clerk at Salomon Brothers. After his first promotion, he dropped out so he could work full time. In 18 years he was vice chairman of one of Wall Street's most powerful firms.
Ranieri pioneered a new class of bonds, based on home mortgages, which made a fortune for the firm. He also was the guy who would pour Bailey's Irish Cream in the coat pockets of a co-worker's favorite suit.
His glory days as mortgage bond king lasted five years. Company chairman John Gutfreund fired him in 1987, reportedly telling Ranieri he was a "disruptive force" who had become "too big for Salomon Brothers." A purge of his loyal employees followed.
He launched his own ventures: pioneering new investments for his own firms, turning around failed savings and loans, picking up cultural causes -- always expanding his financial empire. Now 55, he lives in suburban Long Island.
Longacre said he is baffled at Ranieri's dogged interest in his project.
"I wish he'd leave me alone and find someone else to pick on," Longacre said. "I don't know what he's got against me, but it ain't cool."
The two men have never spoken because Ranieri won't return the developer's calls. He said nothing Longacre could say would change his mind.
"He probably thinks I'm interfering with his God-given right to make money," Ranieri, relaxed in khakis, said in a rare interview at his office in Uniondale, N.Y. "And my answer is, that's not true. I like to make money, too, and I own land in Citrus County, as everybody is so fond to remind me.
"But I don't think the property was ever authorized for that density. I don't think we're trying to downzone it. I think we're trying to maintain it for what it was."
A judge agreed.
The day after the Nov. 5 election, Circuit Judge Jack Springstead threw out the commission's approval of the project. The judge's scathing ruling said the commission majority "predetermined their decision" and "disregarded evidence and testimony."
Springstead listed a dozen arguments opponents made against the project, including that the condos would be incompatible with the area, overstress the water supply and clog the Halls River Road evacuation route.
He said the project clearly violated the county's Comprehensive Plan. Somehow, the judge concluded, the commission majority managed to ignore all this.
Last month the same three commissioners who approved the project voted to ask the 5th District Court of Appeal to overturn Springstead's ruling.
In the meantime, the state Department of Community Affairs is trying to negotiate a settlement.
The Save the Homosassa River Alliance had sought a $1.3-million state grant to buy Longacre's land and turn it into a county park with picnic tables, nature trails and a canoe launch.
Longacre is game, but the river alliance members withdrew the grant application in September. They want the legal challenges to run their course, hoping to establish a precedent that would keep future developers away from the coast.
Last week, the state suggested a compromise. The county could seek a grant to buy the site for a park, and revise its development rules to bar any more intense projects along the coast. It's the outcome condo foes want, without more litigation. The County Commission will decide whether to make that move.
However it turns out, Ranieri wants to send a message to the other developers watching this test case and to the commissioners who approved the project over the public's cries.
"The pregnant question here is what is really going on? Because this doesn't make sense. I wouldn't be the only one who said I smell a rat."
"It's not like we're an isolated minority of lunatic extremists," Ranieri said with a chuckle. "Nobody in Citrus County has ever said I was -- well, maybe a lunatic, but never an extremist."
Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
Ranieri, in Citrus and New York
President and CEO of Ranieri & Co., a private investment adviser and management corporation.
Founder of Hyperion Partners L.P. and Hyperion Partners II L.P., private equity groups that focus on investments in technology and financial services companies.
Lead independent director of Computer Associates Inc., a software company.
Member of Reckson Associates Realty Corp., a New York real estate investment trust.
Former chairman of Bank United Corp., a Texas thrift Ranieri revived after the savings and loan crisis.
Chairman of American Ballet Theatre
Member of board of directors for Environmental Defense, a research and advocacy group.
Citrus County stakes:
Majority shareholder in Pro-Line Boats, a Homosassa boat manufacturer, the county's fifth-largest employer.
Owner of 131/2-acre vacation home on Homosassa River.
Founder of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc., a Crystal River-based group that provides grants for archaeological projects in Mexico and Central America. Web site: www.famsi.org
Owner of more than 1,000 acres of property throughout the county, including large, undeveloped tracts in Citrus Springs.
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