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County is asked to return land

The Felburn Foundation, which donated 137 acres to the county for a park in 1998, wants the land back.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- A private foundation that gave Citrus County 137 acres along the former Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1998 wants the land back because, it says, the county has failed to prevent the use of firearms, motorized vehicles and alcohol on the site.

"It is clear to the Felburn Foundation that Citrus County had no intention and has no intention of maintaining Felburn Memorial Park," the foundation's attorney, Samuel A. Mutch, wrote in a letter to the county last week.

The foundation, based in Yankeetown, has notified the county that it will reclaim the land in accordance with the conveyance agreement signed in 1998.

The property was donated in the name of Ethyl L.and J. Phil Felburn, who started the foundation because of his interest in environmental preservation. At one time, the land was pegged for a marina.

County officials do not dispute that some of the activities occurred on the site, but they say the remote location made enforcement costly and difficult.

"That's been going on for years, long before the Felburn people got involved," Commissioner Gary Bartell said Monday.

Bartell said he is concerned that the dispute could affect a state proposal for a trail head on the land. The Department of Environmental Protection is eager to pursue those plans, which are part of a $4.5-million effort to build trails along the former barge canal.

"I think we have a good relationship with both of them and hope they get their differences worked out so we can continue with this project," said Mickey Thomason, regional manager for the DEP's Office of Greenways and Trails.

The county has not yet formally responded to the concerns outlined in the letter, dated April 4. From a legal standpoint, the county appears to have few options should it decide to fight because of the restrictions outlined in the agreement.

"They do have the right of reverter on it," said assistant county attorney Carl Kern. "It's clear in their conveyance to the county."

Foundation officials declined to comment.

"Until this thing transpires, we are really being quite mum on it," said group representative Jim Blount. "As soon as we have the deed in hand, I'll be happy to talk."

The letter, however, provides details of the dispute.

It states that the county was made aware of the use of firearms for hunting and the use of motorized vehicles and alcohol, but nothing was done to stop such activities. The vehicles, in particular, have caused "extensive" damage to the landscape, the letter says.

"The Felburn Foundation did request signs to be placed on the property specifying no trespassing and the other restrictions, but these signs were never erected," the letter states.

Affidavits by Blount and Ellie Schiller, the foundation's executive director, were provided to support the charges.

The sour mood is a stark contrast to the celebratory feeling that filled the county meeting room in Inverness when the land was donated in October 1998.

Two weeks earlier, the land had been rejected because of a split vote of the commission, but Commissioner Jim Fowler brought the issue up again, and the deal was approved.

The vote was unanimous, despite concerns from Brad Thorpe and Roger Batchelor, who wondered about future maintenance and liability.

Under the conveyance agreement, the county was to devise a master plan for the property and build basic infrastructure there, including parking and bathrooms, but that has not been done.

The Office of Greenways and Trails was going to pay for the parking and bathrooms, Thomason said.

It was the county's understanding that the park would be managed by the state. The master plan also called for an environmental center, which the foundation had pledged to finance.

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