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State deal swells preserve

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Although the state has successfully bought tens of thousands of preservation acres along Citrus County's west coast, it often struggles to reach compromises with land owners.

Former Crystal River City Council member Ed Tolle had been one of the many holdouts. For years, he resisted state efforts to purchase land he owns on the west side of U.S. 19 near the Crystal River Mall.

The negotiations appear to be over. On July 11, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet approved a plan to buy the land, about 10 acres, for $1.4-million, said Ed Kuester, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protections bureau of land acquisition.

One of the parcels, a 3.8-acre tract near Miller's Creek, will provide a buffer amid sensitive wetlands, said Matt Clemons, manager of the St. Martin's Marsh Aquatic Preserve. But the most ambitious plans involve a 5.5-acre tract across from the mall, which is slated to become the entrance to a nature park on 250 acres of pristine land the state owns near the St. Martin's Marsh Aquatic Preserve and Crystal River State Buffer Preserve.

Developers will lose a potentially valuable commercial site, and the city no longer will have the land on the tax rolls.

"I think, if the state does it right, it could be a tourist-pleasing type situation there," City Council member Paula Wheeler said. "I'd rather see that go up there than a Motel 6."

The deal is expected to close by mid October, Kuester said. Meantime, Clemons said the state will begin searching for a planner to develop a conceptual idea for the park.

The 5.5-acre parcel will be used for parking and other amenities, such as an informational stand, he said. The Legislature still must finance the purchase.

Tolle would not comment on the deal.

The project has enormous potential, Clemons said. He called the 250-acre tract "very scenic" but said it is largely untouched and unseen because Woodlands Estate residents have not been open to public access from their subdivision.

The final product will likely include ecological information along the pathways, similar to the eco-walk in the Crystal River buffer preserve.

"We're going to make some effort to make this look very nice," he said. "We want to make it visible. You'll see a lot of bird life. I suspect the birders are going to love that . . . lots of warblers, migrants, raptors, hawks, owls."

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