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Council opposes wetland request

Despite backing annexation of more than 12 acres on U.S. 19, Crystal River doesn't want a South Carolina developer to fill the property.

By RAGHURAM VADAREVU
Published October 4, 2004

CRYSTAL RIVER - The City Council has chimed in one of the city's most controversial issues: a South Carolina developer's request to fill wetlands on property in the newly annexed section of Crystal River.

Thursday, City Manager Susan Boyer sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing the council's opposition to RealtiCorp's quest to fill 12.77 acres of wetlands in a proposed development project along U.S. 19.

"They are against ... the application to develop the wetlands on that specific piece of property," Boyer wrote in the letter.

The council voted 3-2 at its Sept. 20 meeting to formally speak out against RealtiCorp's proposal.

The RealtiCorp project, known as The Preserve at Crystal River, straddles Penn Drive and abuts W Venable Street, just south of the Crystal River Airport, and is part of the 500-plus acres that the city annexed in April. The project would accommodate an anchor retail store, smaller shops and a complex of single-family homes.

The developer has offered to buy 170 acres of mixed uplands and wetland habitat west of U.S. 19 and north of downtown Crystal River, then donate the land to the Crystal River State Buffer Preserve. That purchase would provide mitigation for the wetlands the company wants to fill.

The City Council's letter will be added to the more than 100 letters already sent to the Army Corps opposing the application.

"A majority of people in town are not for changing these wetlands," said council Chairwoman Kitty Ebert, who brought the motion to oppose RealtiCorp's plan and was joined by council members Robert Holmes and Susan Kirk in approving it.

"I felt that it was the City Council's responsibility," Ebert said, adding that she was not necessarily opposed to development at the site. "If they can do what they want to do on that property without affecting the wetlands, go ahead."

Kirk, the lone council member to vote against the annexation plan, agreed.

"I think any reasonable person recognizes that development will occur there," Kirk said. "I would like to see those wetlands protected, and development to occur around them. What a wonderful opportunity for the developer to showcase themselves as an eco-friendly company."

Holmes joined the majority because he wanted the council to send a message to RealtiCorp, which initiated the annexation after negotiations with county officials for construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter broke down.

Holmes said that while the council supported and ultimately approved the annexation, the council would not give the developer "carte blanche."

Council members John Kendall and Roger B. Proffer Sr. opposed sending the letter.

Kendall disagreed with Ebert's contention that the council needed to reflect the views of the "the majority," who Ebert said were opposed to the proposal.

Apart from the numerous letters sent to the Army Corps, Kendall said, the council did not have a way of knowing the true pulse of city residents about the project.

"There hasn't been a survey," Kendall said. "I got four calls, two for it and two against it, and where do you sit? It's kind of tough."

Kendall said the council should let state and federal agencies, such as the Corps and the local water management district, do their work.

"As long as all the laws are met and all the regulations are met, I don't have a problem with development," he said.

Proffer said the council did not need to send the letter because the Corps was not going to approve the application, anyway.

"I really don't believe they are going to okay it," Proffer said. "I would be surprised if they did."

County officials also have major problems with Crystal River's annexation - the county hasfiled two lawsuits against the city - and with RealtiCorp's desire to develop the land.

They contend that the wetlands in question are known as "connected wetlands," meaning they are linked to a system of underground culverts that empty into the Crystal River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Besides filling in wetlands for development, the county opposes construction that would encroach upon the county-operated Crystal River Airport and its runway protection zone. Construction in that area would violate Federal Aviation Administration standards and could jeopardize federal funding to the airport.

-- Raghuram Vadarevu can be reached at rvadarevu@sptimes.com or 564-3627.

[Last modified October 4, 2004, 02:50:31]

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