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County criticized after park plan fizzles

A group that donated land to the county but then took it back says officials didn't protect the property.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Stopping at the edge of a bluff overlooking a 31-acre lake, Jim Blount spread his arms toward the horizon and spoke of what could have been.

Imagine anglers landing bass and trout. Imagine family picnics on the land jutting into the water. Imagine hikers exploring the hilly terrain, the remnant of a former mining operation.

The tableau, accentuated by a light breeze, was cut short as Blount kneeled to pick up a small yellow object.

"No firearms allowed, but there's a shotgun shell," he said, holding the cartridge in his palm. "No alcoholic beverages allowed, but we could get rich selling these cans."

Over the course of some two hours, Blount and Ellie Schiller, director of the Felburn Foundation, denounced county officials for failing to prevent the use of firearms, alcohol and all-terrain vehicles in the area and for not stopping illegal dumping of everything from carpet to washing machines.

It is for those reasons that the non-profit foundation demanded that the county return the land. The County Commission did so this week without a struggle.

Until Thursday, Schiller had said little about the matter. But having successfully reclaimed the deed to the 137-acre tract, which abuts the former Cross Florida Barge Canal, she did not hold back.

"It's shameful that a handful of self-centered, mindless bureaucrats can deprive the county of not just recreation but education," said Schiller, who bought the land in September 1998 for $750,000 as a way of memorializing her parents.

There have been lingering concerns about the property ever since Schiller first approached the county about letting it take over the land in October of that same year.

The commissioners initially rejected the offer, but the offer was brought up again and accepted, despite worries about maintenance costs and liability.

In accepting the land, the county agreed to a strict conveyance agreement, which prohibited the use of firearms, motorized vehicles and alcohol on the land.

The county was given 10 years to develop a master plan for the property and construct basic infrastructure, including parking and bathrooms.

"It would have been a good opportunity, but the timing was not good because we already committed our resources to other parks," said Commissioner Vicki Phillips. "If they wanted to see something happen quick, then taking it back was probably the best solution."

The remote location of the property made monitoring difficult, county officials said. But they dismissed the notion that the land was ignored.

Public Works Director Ken Saunders said 50 "No Trespassing" and "No Hunting" signs were posted on the property, but they were vandalized or torn down. A gate that the county installed at one of the main entrances also was removed by vandals.

"We've attempted to keep the area clean, but with the amount of illegal dumping, we've been unsuccessful," Saunders said.

Removing mattresses, washing machines, couches and other trash dumped along a perimeter road would cost roughly $17,300, Saunders said.

As for ATVs, Phillips said they are a problem across the county, not just at the Felburn property. "It's an up-and-coming recreational sport," she said.

Apparently so. In the southeast corner of the property, ATV riders have fashioned a race track, complete with sloping turns and jumps. Schiller said the track began to take shape last October, destroying one of the more pristine sections of the property.

Schiller, who envisioned an environmental education center on the property, said her plans are derailed for now. She noted that the Felburn Foundation focuses mainly on building libraries, not managing parks.

If there is any consolation, it is this: The state office of Greenways and Trails is negotiating a lease and would develop 22-acres of the property into a trail head, which would be part of a larger network along the former barge canal.

The state would spend up to $700,000 to construct restrooms, parking areas and picnic pavilions. It also would build housing for a law enforcement official who could work to prevent the illegal dumping, use of firearms and ATVs that have so angered the Felburn Foundation.

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