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Weeki Wachee land sale okayed

St. Petersburg will get $14.4-million, and the state will get 440 acres for a nature preserve.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council agreed Thursday to sell Weeki Wachee Spring to make it part of a state nature preserve, saying it is not a practical drinking water source.

Hernando County politicians and environmentalists were ecstatic, saying that state ownership of the 440 acres -- well known as home to a roadside mermaid tourist attraction -- will help preserve an important and rare "first-magnitude" spring.

Many in Hernando exulted that it will now be virtually impossible for water from the spring in their county to be piped to Tampa Bay counties to the south. And the deal will provide St. Petersburg with $14.4-million that it can use for park, recreation, beautification and nature preservation efforts.

"We're going to invest this money in St. Pete," council member Bill Foster said Thursday. "In light of the facts, and just the facts, I can't think of any good reason not to sell."

But it almost didn't happen.

Under the terms of a 1999 voter referendum that authorized the council to sell the land at State Road 50 and U.S. 19, any deal needed the votes of six of the eight council members. For most of Thursday, it had only five.

The debate was lengthy and sometimes confusing -- when a vote was taken shortly after 6 p.m., three council members voted not to sell the property to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The deal seemed dead, supporters were dejected, and the council prepared to move on with its agenda.

But after whispering with Mayor Rick Baker on the dais, council member Richard Kriseman, one of the no votes, asked the council to vote again. This time, the proposal asked the purchaser for a stronger assurance that the land will be preserved forever. Kriseman changed his vote to yes, giving the deal enough votes to pass.

Council members Virginia Littrell and James Bennett voted no both times.

"We should not pump water out of it; not now, not ever," Littrell said during the debate, during which she held up a stuffed mermaid. "We also should not let go of it. We have been good stewards. We will get much more (money for it) in the future."

But other council members pointed out that no one patrols the tract for trespassing or illegal dumping or burns off underbrush there. The water management district, known as Swiftmud, planned to do so as part of its nature preserve that comprises thousands of acres in the area.

The city bought the land in 1940 with the idea of one day using the spring as a drinking water source. But that has since become close to impossible, Baker said.

"There are both practical difficulties with that, as well as legal difficulties and political difficulties, all of which are enormous," the mayor said.

Still, Bennett said he felt "we have a covenant with our forefathers" to keep the land. He also said he feared Swiftmud might later decide to sell or develop it.

The terms of the deal are complicated, because the whole tract is now leased to the company that runs the mermaid attraction. The city will use $2-million of a $16.5-million payment from Swiftmud to buy that company out of the remaining 19 years of the lease. The city also will give the company the 22 acres that holds a hotel across U.S. 19.

Swiftmud will lease 27 acres around the head of the spring back to the mermaid company so it can keep the attraction open. The final version of the deal includes a deed restriction that the prime U.S. 19 frontage east of the highway can be used only for preservation and nature recreation.

The Swiftmud board of governors must still vote on the deal next week. The purchase is funded with money from a state fund called Preservation 2000, which the Legislature borrowed to buy environmentally sensitive land.

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