County commissioners were hoping to use the $6.6 million from last year’s sale of Betz Farm to offset costs for a new animal shelter.
Now, the county is just trying to salvage the sale.
Commissioners last May voted unanimously to sell the 350-acre parcel property north of Turkey Oak Drive in Crystal River to Hamid Ashtari, a real estate developer at Tampa-based Sweetwater Group, who submitted the best and highest bid at $6.6 million.
But two months later, Ashtari requested a 30-day extension of the due diligence period and closing date.
Ashtari told the county his initial backer on the sale dropped out due to the current housing market and rising interest rates.
On Dec. 14, Ashtari requested a three-month extension to get a necessary permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The board voted 3-1 Tuesday to allow Ashtari to deliver $30,000 in escrow and pushed the new extension three months to April 15, 2023. Ashtari will incur a $10,000 non-refundable penalty each month he doesn’t close on the property.
If he closes in two months, he gets $10,000 back. The property must close by the 90th day, per the motion.
Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn said the original contract expired in December, adding yet another wrinkle to the drama.
So commissioners Tuesday were faced with the option of putting the Betz Farm property back on the market or removing the property from other county parcels for sale.
The discussion went back-and-forth and three motions were made but, because Commissioner Jeff Kinnard was on vacation and not present, they all died due to 2-2 votes.
Commissioner Rebecca Bays, who voted against the extension Tuesday, said the county gave the buyer enough time to close the sale and as long as he keeps getting extensions without penalties, “there’s no motivation for him to continue.”
Bays said the county is setting a bad precedent.
“It’s time to fish or cut bait,” she said.
Commission Chairwoman Ruthie Schlabach said Ashtari is a quality developer and wanted to give him more time.
“We are heading into a possible recession and I would encourage this land being sold at the price it was offered,” Schlabach said.
Commissioner Holly Davis agreed.
“I just think he’s already put a lot of skin in the game and a little good will would be a good thing,” she said.”
But commissioners made it clear they expect the buyer to work this out.
“This guy better close in 90 days,” said Commissioner Diana Finegan, who offered compromise motions throughout the discussion “in the spirit of trying to bring everyone together.”
Meanwhile, Schlabach told the Chronicle on Wednesday that even if the current deal falls through another buyer will step up and the proceeds would go to the animal shelter.
Is she optimistic that will happen?
“I have to be optimistic in this job,” she said.
Michael D. Bates is a staff writer with the Citrus County Chronicle and can be reached at email@example.com.
The 36th annual Manatee Festival will take over downtown Crystal River on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 14 and 15, for two full days of vendors, entertainment and visiting manatees in our beautiful local springs.
There will be nearly 400 vendors selling all kinds of crafts and goodies, Art in the Park in the town square, two food courts, two beer and wine gardens, a kids zone with fun activities and more.
“If you can come both days, we recommend it,” said Jade White, Citrus County Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman. “We are super excited. This is a great opportunity to highlight the beauty of Crystal River and our local downtown businesses, as well as for local residents to be tourists in their hometown.”
To see our famous manatees up close during the event, there will be guided kayak tours of Kings Bay with Hunter Springs Kayaks. Tour guides will take visitors on a one-hour tour of the bay and Hunter Springs area. Book online ahead of time at gomanateefest.com.
Manatee boat tours are back again with Manatee Eco-Tourism Association (META) as well for a nominal fee. Local boat captains through META will offer boat tours on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets will be available at the boat dock area near Northwest Third Street in Kings Bay Park.
There will also be free bus rides to Three Sisters Springs and free access to the new Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center during festival hours. Visitors can catch the buses near the entry gate on Fifth Street beginning at 9 a.m. both days. The last pickup is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
Music and entertainment will be featured on three stages: Waterfront Main Stage, Northwest 3rd Street at Kings Bay Park; Pumphouse Stage, adjacent to Town Square off Northeast 1st Street; and Heritage Village Gazebo Stage, North Citrus Avenue at Heritage House.
The Saturday headliner will be Fleetwood Max, nationally touring Fleetwood Mac cover band, at the Waterfront Main Stage from 3 to 5 p.m.
On Sunday, a celebrity appearance by DJ Trae with 99.9 Fox News Radio and 103.9 The Boot will be at 1 p.m. on the Pumphouse Stage. Also, Moonflower will rock the Waterfront Main Stage from 2:30 to 4 p.m. with their amazing Grand Funk Railroad Tribute followed by their outstanding Santana Tribute.
More entertainment with The JoJo & Jay experience, Gypsy Sparrow, Barefoot Bob & The Hope, and more can be found on one of the three stages.
Come and see the numerous local nonprofit organizations ready to share the work and impacts they make daily in the community, including Save the Manatee Club, Ziggy’s Haven Bird Sanctuary, Scubanauts, Florida Skunk Rescue and more.
“Whatever you choose to do at this year’s festival, you are sure to have a great time,” said Crystal River Mayor Joe Meek.
The festival hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15, in downtown Crystal River, at the intersection of Citrus Avenue and U.S. Highway 19. The cost of entry is $5 per person; ages 12 and under are free.
There is free parking available at the former Crystal River Mall, 1801 N.W. U.S. 19, with free shuttle buses to the event. There is very limited street and handicap parking available in the downtown area, so it is recommended that visitors utilize the free parking and shuttle arrangements.
For more information and full schedule of activities, go to the event website at gomanateefest.com, follow @FloridaManatee Festival on Facebook, or call the Chamber at 352-795-3149.
Contact Chronicle Reporter Georgia Sullivan at 352-564-2929.
Who hasn’t played miniature golf?
The Crystal River City Council took another swing this week in giving city residents and visitors the opportunity to play the popular sport, voting unanimously to allow the courses in general commercial areas.
An applicant wanting to build a course on North Citrus Avenue is requesting the amendment as a supplemental use in the city’s zoning.
The council voted Monday to approve the changes that would allow the miniature golf course where there is now a vacant, former daycare center. Monday’s public hearing on the issue was the proposal’s first reading. A second and final reading will be held during the council’s Jan. 23 meeting at City Hall.
“I’m excited about it,” said Mayor Joe Meek, adding that it was good to see the empty, former daycare building being put to use again.
Miniature golf courses are already allowed within the city’s high intensity commercial zoning district as well as public institutional zoning district.
“The use provides significant benefits to both city residents as well as tourists, as it promotes walking, social interaction, and relationship building in a relaxed and informal environment, regardless of one’s age or level of fitness,” wrote city staff in the City Council’s agenda. “This type of activity is beneficial to one’s mental and physical health, as well as providing team building opportunities.
“Miniature golf courses are often found in waterfront cities that thrive on tourism. This is the case in Crystal River. Given the closing of the city’s mall and movie theater, it is likely that such a facility would be quite popular.”
In a recent AYTM survey, miniature golf might be, in some ways, more popular than traditional golf.
Of those people surveyed, 17 percent said they enjoyed playing golf and 19 percent said they enjoyed watching it on television.
But of those surveyed, 60 percent said they’ve never golfed and 11 percent said they play only once or twice a year.
When it comes to miniature golf, also called putt-putt golf, 44 percent of those surveyed said they enjoyed playing.
The city would dictate under its zoning the minimum number of parking spaces, lighting, and hours of operation.
Crystal River’s City Hall is at 123 N.W. Highway 19, Crystal River. The public meetings begin at 5:30 p.m.
Fred Hiers is a reporter at the Citrus Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TAVERNIER — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent dozens of immigrants from Texas to an island off the Massachusetts coast last year in a high-profile effort to highlight illegal immigration on the eve of the midterm elections. But as thousands of Cuban migrants flocked to his own state’s shores in recent weeks, he adopted a more cautious approach.
The governor, who is a top Republican presidential prospect, activated the National Guard late last week. But related deployments of soldiers, boat patrols and military planes were slow to materialize. Some residents expressed frustration about the persistent influx of migrants as they recently inspected two large rafts abandoned in a Florida Keys community park.
“If they come over on a boat, they need to turn the boat back around,” Ernest Vaile, a Missouri resident who winters in Florida, said as he examined the collection of cracked wood, adding that he didn’t blame DeSantis. “From all I know, whatever Gov. DeSantis decides to do will be the right thing.”
The episode unfolding in south Florida offers insight into DeSantis’ leadership as he eyes a presidential primary campaign against former President Donald Trump. The hard-charging governor has won admiration from many Republican voters nationwide by championing hard-line conservative policies on cultural issues – among them race, gender and immigration. But as he considers a presidential announcement, DeSantis appears to be treading more carefully with immigration developments in his own backyard.
He has been silent on the topic in the days since declaring a state of emergency and activating the National Guard via news release. His office declined to answer several questions about his approach to the Cuban migrants. In the news release, he blamed the Biden administration while offering empathy to the Cubans, a community that typically favors Republicans in U.S. elections.
“Florida has a long history of helping refugees, including Cubans and others fleeing communist regimes, find support after they arrive in the United States,” DeSantis said.
While DeSantis is known for embracing Trump’s brash leadership style and even his mannerisms, allies suggest the Harvard-educated former military attorney is more deft at navigating delicate political issues than the former president is.
DeSantis associates privately believe he will finalize his 2024 decision by the end of March, although a public announcement may not come until early summer. He is eyeing an aggressive conservative policy agenda over the coming months to strengthen his prospective Republican candidacy. As DeSantis moves forward, however, the Cuban migrants pose a test for him.
An estimated 7,400 Cubans have been caught in waters off the coast of Florida trying to seek refuge from their communist island nation over the last five months, a dramatic increase under DeSantis’ watch that could leave him vulnerable to criticism from the right.
Failed Florida Republican congressional candidate Laura Loomer, a popular voice among Trump’s most fervent supporters, questioned DeSantis’ commitment to conservative policies on multiple fronts, especially immigration.
“Thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis, we now have more illegal aliens in our country,” Loomer said. “During his time as governor, immigration has actually gotten worse.”
Cubans are leaving the island nation in their largest numbers in six decades. More than 6,000 Cubans journeying by sea were caught by federal authorities in the fiscal year between October 2021 and September 2022, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. That’s compared with only about 800 the year before.
Meanwhile, illegal crossings by Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border surged from 39,000 between October 2020 and September 2021 to more than 220,000 between October 2021 and September 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Once captured, the Cubans are generally freed to pursue their immigration cases in the courts, and many head to Florida.
That number may drop under new asylum rules announced by President Joe Biden that now also apply to Cubans.
Cubans have long been granted immigration benefits under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. While some policies changed under President Barack Obama and were not reinstated under Trump, the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba makes it less likely for Cubans to be deported.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ would-be 2024 rivals – and there are many beyond Trump – are quietly hoping the shine of the governor’s political star will fade as his status as a leading presidential prospect attracts new scrutiny.
In recent days, an aide to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is also weighing a presidential bid, criticized DeSantis for supporting a ban on abortion at 15 weeks after conception as insufficiently conservative. The Florida governor has faced related criticism from anti-abortion activists in his own state who have called on him to impose even stricter limits on the procedure.
At the same time, Democratic operatives are combing through DeSantis’ record and tracking every appearance to generate content designed to weaken his political standing.
American Bridge, a pro-Democrat super PAC known best for producing so-called opposition research, has had a team focused on DeSantis, among other potential 2024 Republican candidates, since October.
“DeSantis believes that he has been tested at the national level, but presidential primaries are a whole different ballgame where perceived small mistakes turn into big problems,” American Bridge President Pat Dennis said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is planning to bolster his conservative bona fides in Florida’s upcoming state legislative session, which begins in March and is expected to conclude by May.
It’s unclear what legislation DeSantis will pursue, but the governor in recent weeks has signaled a desire to keep pulling at partisan divides. He isn’t expected to face much meaningful opposition in a legislature with a Republican supermajority.
In late December, DeSantis’ budget office called on state colleges to submit spending information on programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory, which examines systemic racism. The request could be a prelude to a DeSantis push to slash state funding around what he calls “woke” ideology in state schools. The colleges have to submit the spending data by Friday.
DeSantis also recently made a series of high-profile conservative appointments to the board of trustees of a liberal arts college. Critics worry that he’s simply injecting his conservative politics into the state’s higher education.
“Is he willing to just burn an institution to the ground and harm the community just to score cheap political points?” asked Andrew Gothard, president of the union United Faculty of Florida.
The governor is set to notch another political victory in his fight against Walt Disney World. With his blessing, Republican lawmakers are expected to pass a sweeping bill to increase state control of the private government operated by the entertainment giant over its property in Florida.
DeSantis last year pushed the legislature to dissolve the Disney government over the company’s objection to the law that critics call “Don’t Say Gay,” which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
It’s not all red meat for the Republican base, however.
In the final year of his first term, DeSantis orchestrated pay raises for teachers and law enforcement, a minimum wage increase for state workers and various state tax suspensions. The governor also secured billions of dollars for Everglades restoration and other environmental projects. This week, he signed an executive order calling on lawmakers to dedicate $3.5 billion more to similar environmental initiatives.
And on the Cuban immigration front, he has avoided some of the fiery conservative rhetoric that defined his view on the U.S.-Mexico border – at least, so far.
The Florida National Guard announced Wednesday that it was mobilizing 12 military planes and approximately 150 troops to help south Florida authorities respond to “mass migration impacting the area.”
“The Florida National Guard supports and follows orders of our Commander in Chief, Governor Ron DeSantis,” the Guard said in a statement.
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