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Resort plan: reactions mixed

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published November 3, 2005


CRYSTAL RIVER - On Wednesday, the day after residents and City Council members got their first glimpse at a proposed a six-story resort for the Pete's Pier property, reactions ranged from guarded support to outright rejection.

For city leaders, the proposal set before them was almost symbolic.

Approving such a massive project would chart a future path for development that would move Crystal River away from the small-town atmosphere that some say is the town's most endearing charm.

Then again, such a resort could move Crystal River toward a future of upscale, well-planned development that would benefit everyone in the long run.

Mayor Ron Kitchen said he hoped people would be willing to discuss all the possibilities for the 4-acre site. He said the owner's decision to sell opens opportunities for a well-done development.

"This can be a win-win situation," he said. "We would want to work to make as many people as possible happy."

Kitchen said the perspective that Crystal River can always maintain its small-town feel and avoid major development is "unrealistic." The upgrading of Crystal River really began several years ago as people bought small homes on Kings Bay and tore them down to make big, waterfront showplaces.

"Every place is going to change," he said. "That's just the nature of things."

Kitchen predicted that whatever landed on the marina property would likely be a compromise between the two different viewpoints.

He said the city's choice is to decide whether a property like Pete's Pier is unique and that something special could be developed there. If so, should city leaders stick to the letter of the city's development rules, which set height, density and other requirements? Or should they be willing to compromise to get "something even nicer?"

"It's a dynamic time in the city, but we all knew it was coming," Kitchen said. "I'm just asking people to keep an open mind."

Council member Susan Kirk said she listened to the comments at a town hall meeting Tuesday and took many notes. She plans to study those and the detailed presentation on the proposal in preparation for a planned council discussion on Nov. 14.

"I think there is a realization of the fact that we're at a turning point for the city," Kirk said. "It needs to be taken seriously."

She also said the council should still keep open the discussion about whether the city itself might want to be in the marina business.

With such a mixture of opinions on the proposal, council member John Kendall said he found himself in a bit of a quandary: He wants to represent the majority of his constituents, but he isn't sure whether people would be in favor or against such a development.

"Now it's up to the council to sit and mull this over and make decisions on what direction the city will go," Kendall said. "I want more information. ... I want to get a better feel of how the community is reacting to this."

As with the failed annexation attempt by the city over the last year, Kendall said, he saw this proposal as another watershed.

"I thought at that time we'd reached that edge, but now we're getting a second chance. The question is: a second chance at what?" Kendall said. "I have a lot of soul searching and investigating to do."

Council member Jim Farley said he felt the developers "came in like a steamroller" with their proposal, threatening dire consequences if the city didn't buy into their vision for the property.

"I wasn't thrilled with that," he said.

But Farley rejects the scope and concept of the project as well.

"It's too big, too many units, too high and inappropriate for Kings Bay," he said. "It would be hard on our infrastructure," unduly taxing the roads and utilities.

He also rejected the developer's comments that it is aware the city wanted to keep with the quaint fishing village atmosphere and tried to adhere to that theme in what was proposed. "It's ugly. It's really ugly," he said. "I don't see fishing village. I see New Port Richey."

Farley worried about what the next development around the corner might be if this were accepted.

"We'd never be the same. We have a quality of life that people love, and this would change that," he said. "I don't want us to become this."

Council member Roger Proffer said there were elements of the proposal worth talking about. But what was presented Tuesday was "a little too big for Crystal River," he said.

"They've got to tone it down a little. ... It will never pass like that."

Kirk said one question she still wants answered is whether there would be a market for such a project, which she is convinced is really a time-share development.

"That question is on my list. What if something like this fails?" Kirk said.

City Manager Phil Deaton said he didn't know the answer to that question, but he had faith that the developers had done their research.

Mary Craven, tourism development manager for Citrus County, had no doubt that such a development would serve a growing market of visitors.

"I think that the average visitor to Citrus County is becoming a bit more affluent. I know from what I've seen at the Homosassa Riverside Resort, Gail Oakes has turned a property from a 1970s-style motel into one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchens and has done very well at it," Craven said. "The average rate had increased ... and the property has been improved."

Visitor trends have also been toward longer and more comfortable stays in the area.

Such a business would also generate tourist taxes, which would supplement the county's efforts to draw even more visitors to Citrus.

Helen Spivey is a former City Council member and state representative, and has been a longtime environmentalist and manatee advocate. She asked what price the community would pay for all this growth and development. She said she worried that an unbalanced mix of more visitors than residents would put manatees at risk.

More people would crowd the area's fragile waterways with growing numbers of manatees, but they would be different people who arrive knowing nothing about following the established manatee protection rules.

"It's going to be a nightmare trying to educate them," she said.

Spivey also noted that Crystal River has a character, and this project does not fit with it.

"Knowing Pete's Pier and seeing that thing there, wow, we just don't want to go that way," she said. "My feeling when looking at the artist's concept is, oh, my Lord. Say it isn't so."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 3, 2005, 01:06:17]


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