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Swiftmud fed up with Weeki Wachee

Tired of wrangling with the park's managers, the agency decides to go to court.

By ROBERT KING
Published March 31, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - The Southwest Florida Water Management District finally ran out of patience with Weeki Wachee Springs Tuesday, deciding to go to court with a sackful of grievances with the park's managers.

Swiftmud, as the agency is known, wants a circuit judge to issue a declaratory judgment on issues relating to the legality of the park's ownership by the tiny city of Weeki Wachee.

But Swiftmud also wants a court to determine whether the dredging of the Weeki Wachee River last month by park employees - without environmental permits or Swiftmud's permission - was a "material" breach in the park's lease.

Above all, Swiftmud governing board members made it clear they are fed up with the park's management team and its attorney, Joe Mason.

Board member Ed Chance said terminating Swiftmud's lease with the management, Weeki Wachee Springs LLC, wouldn't mean the end of the mermaid shows for which the park is known.

"It's time for us to stand firm and end this," Chance said. "It doesn't mean the attraction is going to close and we are going to lose a valuable asset."

Chance suggested that Swiftmud could seek new park managers, although Swiftmud's decision to go to court is just the beginning of the legal process of terminating the park's lease.

Specifically, Swiftmud wants a judge to determine:

Whether the donation of the attraction to the city last summer by its private ownership group was constitutional. Part of the concern is whether city taxpayers assumed private debts in the process. Whether the city is breaking the law by keeping the private company intact even after the company came under city ownership. Swiftmud officials say court cases have shown that public takeovers of private companies have better legal grounds if the company is dissolved and its properties are absorbed into the city government. That hasn't happened at Weeki Wachee.

Whether the donation, if legal, constituted a transfer of the park's lease, which Swiftmud - as manager of the state-owned land - should have been given the chance to approve or reject, as called for in the lease itself.

Swiftmud board members raised those issues in August. As a whole, the board sought an opinion on them from Attorney General Charlie Crist. Weeki Wachee Springs sought an opinion, too, filing its paperwork even before Swiftmud.

However, Crist declined to issue a formal opinion, saying in November the issues should be settled in court.

After that, Swiftmud tried to work with Weeki Wachee in a cooperative manner, said Swiftmud attorney Bill Bilenky.

But the dredging of the river proved to be the last straw for Swiftmud, which is charged with maintaining the health of the Weeki Wachee Spring and the land around it.

"There comes a time when you have to say enough is enough," said Chance, who has been perhaps the most persistent critic of Weeki Wachee's tactics.

Unlike at Swiftmud's previous hearings on Weeki Wachee, none of the agency's 11 board members tried to defend the park Tuesday.

Last summer, board member Ron Johnson strongly advocated giving Weeki Wachee Springs room to show that it had turned over a new leaf now that it was under city ownership.

But on Tuesday, he described its management as "combative" and unwilling to cooperate by providing written assurances that it won't harm the spring or the river.

"I have strongly advocated working with the (company)," he said. "Not anymore."

Board member Janet Kovach said in a meeting last summer that she had been charmed by Weeki Wachee's mermaids and its old Florida nostalgia. But on Tuesday, she said she found the dredging of the river to be "disturbing" and the park's rejection of a lease amendment providing rigid penalties for future dredging to be even "more disturbing."

"The reality is that Weeki Wachee is a protection area, and we need to protect it," Kovach said. "I'm ready to move on."

Mason declined an opportunity to speak in Weeki Wachee's defense, something he has done at previous Swiftmud hearings. At those meetings, Mason dominated the proceedings both in time at the lectern and in steering the debate.

But as soon as Swiftmud's board voted unanimously to go to court, Mason and Weeki Wachee Springs general manager Robyn Anderson stood and walked briskly out of the room.

To reporters, they had no comment.

Park officials had tried to downplay criticism of the dredging. Initially, Mason said there was no work done in the river. But a videotape delivered to Swiftmud clearly showed a front-end loader several yards out into the water.

Beyond that, park officials said they had no idea that permits or Swiftmud's blessing was needed to do sand reclamation work that the park had been doing for years.

They have also tried to emphasize the progress being made at restoring the park. Several abandoned buildings have been demolished. A termite-infested restaurant has been repaired. An unsafe animal show theater was torn down and rebuilt.

And, just last week, the park finally shut down its on-site sewage treatment plant, which was deemed archaic and a risk to contaminate the river. Now, the park's sewage is treated by Hernando County's sewer system.

Even so, that job - along with the complete removal of the plant - was supposed to have been done in August 2002.

Swiftmud began pressuring for the job to be done last spring. But the city's takeover of the park and its promises to address those concerns prompted Swiftmud to extend its deadlines.

After Swiftmud set another deadline for Jan. 31, the park missed it by nearly two months.

Weeki Wachee Springs blamed delays in getting the proper permits with the state Department of Environmental Protection. But Bilenky said Tuesday that Weeki Wachee's designs for the new sewer connections caused the delays.

Swiftmud board members, in venting their frustration, also noted Tuesday that Weeki Wachee Springs has so far failed to produce an accounting of its financial performance in 2003, as Mason promised last fall.

Recently, amid the dredging controversy, Mason told the Times that the finances weren't the most pressing issue.

Chance said he didn't know how Swiftmud could continue in a relationship that was so one-sided.

Swiftmud's decision to seek a declaratory judgment came at the recommendation of a special counsel, Brooksville attorney Frank Miller, who examined the issues regarding the park's lease with Swiftmud.

Miller said it was incumbent on Swiftmud to settle the legal uncertainties.

Under questioning from board members, Miller acknowledged that Swiftmud - and the taxpayers who support it - could be liable for lawsuits against the attraction if the transfer to Weeki Wachee is deemed unconstitutional.

Questions about Weeki Wachee's legal status could also jeopardize its insurance.

"The purpose of this entire action is appropriate to get these issues resolved," Miller said.

- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 31, 2004, 01:35:39]


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