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Springs protection to challenge city, agencies

A Times Editorial
Published February 21, 2007


Over the years, various government agencies and environmental groups have tried to acquire Three Sisters Springs, a natural wonder in Crystal River where manatees and other creatures, including humans, have long frolicked in the deep springs.

The reason why is as clear as the water coursing through the three springs: This site is unique.

While there are many springs feeding Kings Bay and other area waterways, none offers the majesty, serenity and clarity of this huge underwater bowl. It's no wonder that wildlife in many forms have sought refuge here for millennia.

But those seeking to protect this area from the ravages of development were never quite able to do so. While the public owns the water, the dry land surrounding the springs has been in private hands, and this failure to strike a deal has left the door open to suitors aiming to build waterfront homes.

In 2005, the property changed hands. The new owners, Harry "Hal" Flowers of Tampa and his partners, insisted that they would present a development plan that respects the site.

Now, they have submitted their proposal. In the coming weeks, government agencies and public watchdog groups will examine the plans to see whether the developers have been true to their word.

The plans call for a gated community of 309 homes, 69 of which would be single-family, the rest multifamily. That number is a jolt until one considers that zoning would allow a whopping 464 units on the 57 acres.

Still, adding more than 300 families to this area will bring enormous impacts, and not just to the manatees and other water-dwelling creatures.

If approved, this development would pour hundreds more vehicles onto local roads that already are stressed.

Building so many new homes in a flood-prone zone west of U.S. 19 would add to the challenge of evacuating the area during a severe storm.

The tainted stormwater runoff from these buildings and new roads will add to the burden already being felt by surface water and groundwater, no matter where this flow is directed. The city's sewer and drinking water capacities must be considered, as well as the effects on other services such as police and fire protection.

These are all significant areas of concerns for the city staff as it reviews this project and other development proposals for sections on the north side of town.

One of the lingering impressions from Crystal River's controversial annexation attempt of properties leading to the RealtiCorp site along U.S. 19 in 2005 was that some of the city's leaders were so focused on increasing the tax base, and the tax revenue, that they rushed the process. A judge ultimately ruled the annexation was illegal.

This time around, the city has a chance to do better, to respect the rights of the developer while not running roughshod over the interests of the public.

In the best-case scenario, this natural treasure would have been acquired for conservation.

It is too late for that to happen, so now the attention shifts to protecting Three Sisters from going the route of so much waterfront development in Florida.

With plan reviews and hearings set to begin in the coming weeks, the public will know soon enough whether Crystal River is up to the challenge.

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 20:08:06]

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