2012 in review: Springs’ eternal hope

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Opponents don’t stop Three Sisters project from moving closer to completion

By Mike Wright

CRYSTAL RIVER — Plans for developing the Three Sisters Springs property moved forward in 2012 despite some bumps from neighbors who didn’t appreciate the idea of manatee watchers peering into their yards.

The city council backed the management plan, including adding a boardwalk that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service constructed during the year to give manatee watchers a place to stand without trampling on the banks.

The plan was tweaked to drop a planned kayak launch to address concerns of congestion in the area. Instead, officials plan a nature discovery area.

And officials with the city and wildlife service must still decide whether to build the visitor center on site or at a nearby shopping center. Officials say moving the visitor center offsite solves a parking dilemma at the property, but creates a funding obstacle for the welcome center.

A coalition of agencies combined to buy the 54-acre property, home to the springs that attract dozens of manatees each winter, for $10.5 million in 2010. The city of Crystal River owns 70 percent and Southwest Florida Water Management District owns 30 percent.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the property on the city’s behalf.

Other than regular open houses — the next one is Jan. 19 to 20, weekend of the Manatee Festival — the property is closed to the public.

Eventually, it will be open and officials believe it will become a huge tourist attraction.

City Manager Andy Houston and Michael Lusk, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, said little will be done on site until after the water management district completes the stormwater filtering system it is building on the property to capture water from nearby shopping center parking lots before it rolls into King’s Bay. That project is expected to occur in 2013.

Meanwhile, the city is expected to move ahead in January with a $2.4 million upgrade of Cutler Spur Boulevard. Work should begin in March and be completed before the year’s end, Houston said.

Government officials agreed the entrance to the Three Sisters property will be off Cutler Spur, so the entrance will not be built until after the road project is completed. Lusk said officials do not want access at the current entrance off Kings Bay Drive because it’s in a residential neighborhood.

The biggest issue concerning the Three Sisters project in 2012 came from residents who live across from the property along canals who wanted to close off manatee-viewing access because of the potential for tourists gawking at them in their yards.

Lusk said in an interview he was surprised with the opposition, considering that before the property was purchased a developer had approved plans for homes and townhouses.

“With what we’re proposing, 80 to 85 percent of it will be left untouched,” he said. “It’s going to become more wild, not less. In 15 years when people see how well Three Sisters turned out, they’ll be glad they moved next to it.”

The management plan, approved by the city council in June, includes two manatee viewing areas construction to somewhat limit the field of vision to allow for an element of privacy for residents across the canal.

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.