This area's way too quiet, builders say
Some major projects are on the radar in sleepy northwest Citrus County.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET, BARBARA BEHRENDT and ELENA LESLEY
Published June 26, 2006
CRYSTAL RIVER - Northwest Citrus County is quiet. It always has been.
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Progress Energy is expected to decide on the location of a new nuclear power plant this summer, and Crystal River is considered a strong candidate. Other proposed developments in the area include a marina and an extension of the Suncoast Parkway.
Homes are few and far between. Ditto for businesses. Progress Energy's sprawling power complex sits on the coast, surrounded by vacant land and the Gulf of Mexico.
This part of the county is remote even to most Citrus residents.
It isn't where government planners expected, or encouraged, major growth.
But some of the North Suncoast's largest and most controversial projects - including a second Progress Energy nuclear plant, a large marina, extensive lime rock mining, a residential development and an extension of the Suncoast Parkway - may be on the way.
If approved, any one of them would have a major effect on the region's landscape, geographically and politically.
The combination "would obviously change the area significantly," said Gary Maidhof, Citrus' director of development services.
For developers, the pristine property and waterfront access are untapped gems that could attract businesses and home buyers priced out of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
For Progress Energy, the deep-seated local political support of the company's existing nuclear plant and the proximity to gulf waters make the area a contender in the search for a nuclear plant site.
But for environmentalists and some longtime residents, the region is one of the last footholds of Old Florida - and one of the least appropriate places to develop.
More than 2,000 years ago, the area's natural resources caught the eye of American Indians, who established a flourishing trade center in Crystal River.
In 1942, some untouched land attracted Pinellas County's Hollins family, which bought thousands of acres for cattle ranching and eventually timber and lime rock mining.
Florida Power built two coal-fired power plants west of U.S. 19 in the 1960s. A nuclear plant and two more coal-powered plants followed during the '70s and '80s.
Fueled by Northern retirees, Citrus County's population soared from 9,268 in 1960 to more than 132,600 in 2005. But the area known locally as Red Level - so named after dust from dolomite mines blew over the area and stained roads and trees red - remained largely untouched.
One exception was the Nature Coast Landings RV Resort, just north of Red Level and east of U.S. 19.
Its most famous resident is Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O'Reilly on the hit TV show M*A*S*H. He moved to the 239-unit park in 2004 "because things got too congested and hectic" elsewhere.
"This area will be the last to go, if it has to go," the 63-year-old actor said.
Some worry it's already starting to slip away.
* * *
In October, Progress Energy officials said the company was considering building a second nuclear plant at Crystal River. The decision will come this summer.
In February, Citrus Mining & Timber president Dixie Hollins unveiled his proposal to move the mining on Hollinswood Ranch to make way for a commercial port district, a large marina and at least 22 boat ramps on the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Hollins said he planned a top-notch, environment-friendly development that would make his father and grandfather - who was Pinellas County's first school superintendent - proud.
The owners of Madeira Beach Seafood, one of the gulf's largest grouper distributors, are considering moving or expanding the fish house's operations there.
A few weeks after Hollins' announcement, developers presented plans for the Izaak Walton Lodge in Yankeetown, just over the river in Levy County. They want 190 resort hotel rooms, a bed-and-breakfast, marinas, a wastewater treatment facility and an environmental preserve.
"Development is coming. We're raising the bar. We want to be the leaders," developer Peter Spittler said.
In December, the Citrus County Commission settled a lawsuit with the estate of W.W. Caruth Jr. by allowing 50 waterfront homes with 25 boat docks on the Withlacoochee.
Less than 5 miles away from these proposed projects is the spot where the Suncoast Parkway will end if officials decide to build an approximately 26-mile extension through Citrus. The road now stops near the Hernando-Citrus border.
* * *
Making any of this happen would be much easier said than done.
Maidhof, the development services director, is quick to note that the county's comprehensive plan directs growth toward the center of Citrus, not its outer reaches.
That's because the west coast is environmentally sensitive and prone to flooding in low-lying areas. Even relatively weak Tropical Storm Alberto put parts of Citrus under water. Water and sewer infrastructure hasn't made its way to northwest Citrus yet.
The comprehensive plan also prohibits residential development within 5 miles of Progress Energy's existing nuclear plant, though at least one local land use lawyer has questioned the logic behind that regulation.
And the nuclear plant is not the only thing developers have to worry about: If the Inglis Lock, located east of U.S. 19 between the barge canal and Lake Rousseau, breaks during a storm, much of the surrounding area will flood, according to sheriff's Capt. Joe Eckstein, the county's emergency management director.
Eckstein says growth in northwest Citrus is a "major concern" from his perspective. The area has only one hurricane evacuation route, U.S. 19, which could be covered by flooding during a severe storm.
"There's a reason why the studies show these to be coastal high-hazard areas," he said.
Moreover, any large change to the comprehensive plan in Citrus requires an extensive public hearing process. The same is true in Yankeetown, with the Town Council having the final say.
* * *
Though the projects are almost all in their early stages, citizen groups are already starting to speak out.
Yankeetown residents have protested the development plans, and sparked political chaos in the process.
A group vocally opposed to a Suncoast Parkway extension has been meeting for years. Two Citrus landowners stopped the Turnpike Authority in its tracks for more than a year with a lawsuit concerning open meetings.
"You're starting to see more organization," Maidhof said. "This has got neighbors talking to each other."
Many of them are gearing up for a war. Leading the charge on at least one front is Charles Miko.
The retired physics teacher lives just north of Citrus Mining & Timber's property. Hollins' latest proposal excited many local business leaders but riled nearby residents like Miko who say the project would place disruptive and destructive mining closer to their homes.
Miko, 80, said he never expected the area where he lives to remain untouched by development. Growth, he said, is going to come.
"The question is not whether or not it's going to happen, but how do you do it," he said.
"I worry about what compromises will be made."
Helen Spivey, co-chairwoman of the Save the Manatee Club, said compromise is not an option.
Spivey has repeatedly spoken out against the Hollinswood project, telling officials that increased boat traffic on the barge canal would endanger manatees. She also has concerns about a second nuclear plant, particularly the prospect of more spent fuel rods being stored on site.
"We just need to start saving what we have left," she said.
"It's Mother Nature's savings account, and we're spending her down to nothing."
After being driven out of North Wildwood, N.J., by development, Dave Gatelein moved to Yankeetown 10 years ago in search of "a more quiet place."
At the time, locals still outnumbered retirees, and most people earned their living on the local fishing economy. But things started to change. More and more couples bought vacation homes in the area, and it started to become more "civilized," he said.
And now, the blow the 57-year-old never expected: a proposed 190-unit resort hotel.
"I knew development would come someday," he said, "but I thought I would be dead by then."
* * *
But even as opposition mounts, growth is coming.
The Nature Coast Landings RV park, where Burghoff lives, is nearly sold out. Building is starting to heat up in areas that have been dormant for years, like the Crystal Manor subdivision just east of U.S. 19. Ritzy redeveloped homes where Cracker houses once stood are an increasingly common site on the shores of the winding Withlacoochee.
In 2008 the Florida Transportation Department plans to start building another bridge over the Cross Florida Barge Canal and rebuilding the existing bridge to allow for four lanes of traffic instead of two.
But the biggest change may come in the next few months, when Progress Energy officials say they'll announce their pick for a possible nuclear plant site.
If they choose Crystal River, local public hearings won't be necessary, since their property is already zoned appropriately.
Citrus officials are excited about the prospect of more jobs and more property tax dollars from the county's largest private employer. They have passed a series of resolutions to show the utility that expansion is welcome.
"It would have a tremendous impact in every shape, manner and form," County Commissioner Dennis Damato said.
Thousands of construction workers would come to one of the county's sleepiest corners, Damato, 53, said, and the plant would also create long-term, high-paying jobs.
"I lived here when they built the other one. It was wild," he said. "There was dancing and there were bands and there was partying. It was a whole different time when they did that."
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 860-7309.
[Last modified June 26, 2006, 08:17:58]
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