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Riverside Resort expansion wins approval

In a 3-2 vote, County Commission members split over whether the project suits the area.

Published July 13, 2006

LECANTO - A divided County Commission voted 3-2 to approve expansion plans for the Riverside Resort in Homosassa on Tuesday night.

Critics of the project said it defied the area's overlay district plan and would destroy the character of Old Homosassa. But the majority of commissioners said it would strengthen and beautify the community.

"I think it's the right thing to do," commission Chairman Gary Bartell said before casting a vote in favor of the expansion. "I'll always take green space and saving the community."

County staffers boiled down the debate to two issues: building height and open space.

But during the nearly four hours of debate and public comment that preceded the commission's vote, other topics came up, including the area's economy and boat traffic on the Homosassa River.

Commissioners Dennis Damato and Jim Fowler agreed with Bartell. Commissioners Vicki Phillips and Joyce Valentino voted against the expansion, saying there was no guarantee that developers wouldn't try to build on the open space in the future.

More than 100 residents, many of them members of the Homosassa River Alliance, packed Room 166 of the Lecanto Government Building. About 40 of them spoke, pushing the County Commission meeting late into the evening.

Planner Margaret Beake said the county had received 17 e-mails and letters in support of the project and 893 e-mails, letters and petitions against it. And the county received 275 additional petitions opposing the project Tuesday morning, she said.

The Riverside Resort's owners proposed leveling all buildings on the east side of the main entrance road and replacing them with 72 motel suites in buildings of three stories over parking, and 15 regular motel rooms in two stories over retail.

Representatives for the project said that approach would allow them to preserve more open space on the property. But members of the Homosassa River Alliance and other area residents said the buildings proposed as part of the expansion were too high.

In a video slide presentation, Riverside Resort managing partner Gail Oakes said the expansion complied with the overlay district and other county rules, "meeting today's building codes while preserving Florida's past."

During the hearing's public comment period, more than 20 people, some of whom said they worked at the resort, spoke in favor of the expansion.

"I really don't see any downside to this," Sanford Garland said. "I like the green space."

Richard Zimmerman, who has worked at the resort for more than four years, said he is a fervent environmentalist and supports the project. He described Oakes as "a person who is all about getting things done and getting them done the right way."

But other residents said the proposed expansion was wrong for the community.

"This looks like it belongs in Fort Lauderdale or Miami," Homosassa resident Tom Sanders said.

Winston Perry, who served on the steering committee that helped draft the overlay district, said the 6.2-acre site just south of the Homosassa River was not the right place for a four-story building.

"Bigger's not always better," he said.

Homosassa River Alliance president Priscilla Watkins said the project and its developers were "out of scale, they're out of style and they're totally out of sensibility."

At the heart of Tuesday night's debate was language in the overlay district plan, which commissioners voted to approve last year. The wording allows for two stories over living space but does not define those terms or give specific height measurements.

Representatives of the resort, commissioners and even some opponents of the expansion agreed that the phrasing was too ambiguous.

"Cartoon drawings and stories aren't clear enough for attorneys and developers and just families trying to make it through the day," Oakes told commissioners.

Phillips said she was concerned about the wording. Bartell said it had "created a major problem for the community of Homosassa." They asked county staffers to work on revising the language.

Ultimately, commissioners' said the wording of the overlay plan didn't affect their decision.

"This redevelopment will be monumental for many reasons," Damato said, noting that the project should be the anchor for redevelopment in Old Homosassa.

Fowler praised the project's preservation of green space. But in the end, he said his support came down to a more fundamental principle: property rights.

"These folks have rights here," he said, referring to the project's owners.

Phillips said the project would not fit in with its surroundings.

"Four stories in that area is not going to preserve or enhance it," she said.

After the commission's vote, Oakes smiled and hugged her supporters.

As leaders of the Homosassa River Alliance filed out of the meeting room Tuesday night, several of them said the commission's decision was eerily reminiscent of the board's 3-2 vote to approve the Halls River Retreat condominium project in 2002.

Watkins said the Homosassa River Alliance would meet soon to decide its next step. Members have hired Inverness lawyer Denise Lyn to represent the group. Lyn also represented the group in its legal challenges against the Halls River Retreat project.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at or 860-7309.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 23:41:01]

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