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When developers arrived, peace left

Once-tranquil Yankeetown is torn apart by a proposal to build a vacation resort on the Withlacoochee.

Published May 30, 2006


YANKEETOWN - This tiny town just north of the Citrus County line is imploding.

For years, 600-plus people have lived undisturbed here, enjoying a quiet life in a place where Town Hall closes at noon and the biggest thing that ever happened was when Elvis showed up 45 years ago to film a movie.

But today, Yankeetown is far from tranquil.

A developer's plan to build a vacation resort along the shores of the Withlacoochee River has plunged the hamlet into open warfare. Neighbors eye each other with suspicion. Three of the town's five council members and a chunk of the town's longtime staff have resigned as accusations of corruption fly and meetings descend into ugly shouting matches.

Last week, state investigators started probing possible Sunshine Law violations and alleged threats against town officials.

A group of residents is trying to recall the mayor. And some fear the town could self-destruct any day, leaving Yankeetown under more lenient county codes.

"I've never seen a town so torn apart as this town,'' said new council member Dan Bowman, who replaced a woman who resigned. "It's destroying us.''

The battle for Yankeetown mirrors many similar fights up and down Florida's Gulf Coast as developers clash with environmentalists and townspeople.

People live in Yankeetown because they like it the way it is: Narrow streets lined with sabal palms. Lazy days on the water. A single general store where you can get sandwiches and chicken, and if you order ahead, barbecued ribs.

The largely retired population came here to escape the sprawl of suburban Florida.

Growth breeds growth, they say. Traffic, crime, demand for resources the town doesn't have.

Still, the resort hotel has moved forward.

The disputed project - 135 resort hotel rooms, a bed and breakfast, spa, cabana restaurant and wet and dry boat slips - cleared a hurdle during a confused and raucous meeting two weeks ago, when the Town Council decided to officially start negotiating with the developers.

The council achieved a quorum to approve the opening talks by bringing back a member who had resigned, enraging already weary opponents.

"It was too orchestrated to be coincidental,'' said resident Ed Candela, who has fought the development.

The fracturing of Yankeetown started in December, when word spread that two developers were scouting out the town. Rumors simmered.

"We had people saying we were going to build 10-story condos, all kinds of things,'' said Peter Spittler, a developer with Izaak Walton Investors LLC, and one of the men who sparked the gossip.

As the resort plans filtered out, people got mad.

They got angrier when they learned the former town attorney worked for months with developers on what town records dubbed "The Marina Project.''

As the rancor built, newly elected Mayor Joanne Johannesson told residents she had "no idea'' why the proposed project had been kept secret.

A presentation from the developers in February didn't help matters.

As hundreds of residents from Yankeetown, and neighboring Inglis - where the town mayor once issued a proclamation banning Satan -filled the local school gymnasium, the suit-clad Spittler clicked his way through PowerPoint slides.

"We want to work with the community to create something unique," he told the audience.

But few held back when the time came to ask questions.

"Have you ever sold snake oil?'' one resident wanted to know.

Outside, a protestor cavorted by the door in a devil costume, telling people Satan had been driven out of Inglis and right into Yankeetown.

The stunts have added a comic touch to the debate, but there are serious concerns - including that the resort could overwhelm the town's volunteer fire department, which doesn't have a ladder truck.

Some also fear the new project will damage Yankeetown's unspoiled environment.

"I'm very concerned about the manatees and increased boat traffic,'' said Helen Spivey, co-chairwoman of Save the Manatee Club, which has been monitoring Yankeetown's battle.

The resort hotel centers around the Izaak Walton Lodge, which reopened in 2000 after fire destroyed the historic inn and restaurant. In development designs, a bed and breakfast juts off from the main building, leading to a waterfront resort and resculpted shoreline.

Spivey said the developers' plans to dredge the riverbanks could alter the natural habitat and hurt animals that lay eggs in those areas.

"You can't just whack away at the shoreline,'' she said.

Residents fighting the development agree but say more than environmental concerns are at stake. Namely, the future of Yankeetown.

"People who used to be friends are not talking,'' said Marinus De Rijke, who resigned as acting chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

"They can't stand each other now.''

Town Council meetings are circuses that stretch for hours as residents hurl insults at the council and each other.

At the mayor's request, a Levy County deputy attends meetings to escort out rowdy residents.

A particularly determined antidevelopment group has mobilized under the slogan "Save Yankeetown,'' blanketing the town with bright yellow T-shirts, decals and yard signs. Angry residents rant on, calling their council a "Banana Republic'' and "Puppet Government.''

Sally Price, who contributes to the local paper, the Newscaster, has helped lead the charge.

For months, Price wrote incendiary editorials for the Newscaster, hand-delivering 250 copies each Wednesday to subscribers in Yankeetown.

Recently, she has backed off, saying she was threatened by other residents. The controversy has taken its toll on others.

Council member Diane Blomgren, who resigned along with council member Roger Myrick on May 11, said the stress has affected her health, causing her to drop 26 pounds. A few days after the council members quit, the town clerk of 17 years and assistant town clerk also gave notice.

A recently hired zoning official now refuses to set foot in town, saying he was intimidated by residents. He agreed to finish a few projects from the safety of Citrus County.

Mayor Johannesson says she isn't stepping down, even though the recall petition is gathering momentum and every day someone else accuses her of selling out Yankeetown to the Walton group.

"The allegations are completely unfounded,'' she said. "I've never been dancing with the developers.''

She says the turmoil is caused by the "NIMBY'' - Not In My Back Yard - phenomenon.

Now, state officials may end up deciding the fate of the mayor, the resort project and Yankeetown itself.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said recently it was looking into allegations made by residents, although FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said she couldn't reveal whether the department had started conducting interviews in Yankeetown.

In a letter to the governor, dozens of Yankeetown residents pleaded for an investigation "into the actions of our mayor, former mayor, majority of our Town Council, former council, current & former zoning officer(s), & group of developers that have been continuing in what we believe to be an illegal manner, possibly a criminal conspiracy."

As she battles her neighbors, Johannesson has no illusions about the small town she currently governs.

"It's an absolute mess.''

[Last modified May 30, 2006, 04:39:41]

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