Tempers flare during Homosassa park discussion

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Tempers flared among community groups and Citrus County commissioners on Tuesday during a discussion about funding for a planned family park along Old Homosassa waterfront property.

The community and county are working together to establish the Old Homossasa Heritage Waterfront Park.

But it comes at a cost.

The state has committed $850,000 to help fund the park, and RESTORE funds (BP oil spill settlement money) are hoped for, but not in the county's hands. To get the state money, the county would have to pay $585,500 in matching funds. 

To complicate matters further, the price for the piece of property thought suitable for the 2-acre park and museum is $1.435 million, and Citrus County Commission Chairman Scott Carnahan said that he thought that was overpriced for the acreage.

"It's not worth $1.435 million. We can find other property for way less than this," Carnahan said.

Commissioner Brian Coleman agreed. "I am also concerned with the price," he said, as well as the traffic and access to the Homosassa River, especially during scallop season.

Commissioner Ron Kitchen said that from the beginning, it was about government and the community working together. And the community had a chance to speak during an Open to the Public period.

Kennedy Smith, Crystal River agreed that the property owner was asking for too much money. "Someone should negotiate with the seller," Smith said. Former county commissioner Joyce Valentino said the issues boiled down to money and location, and wondered if the property was the right fit for a park. "I never supported this park in this location. It doesn’t have the right ambiance for a family."

Homosassa resident Roger Cullen urged commissioners to secure the property before property values increased. "This property will be gone in about six months," Cullen said. "This is the most beautiful piece of property left on the river." He also said it would be nice to have place for families to use. This piece of property will not be here in two years, he said.

Homosassa leader Rodney McRae, and began a dialog that favored going ahead with acquiring the property. "I thought we were all on the same page, he told commissioners. "You guys stand at the pinnacle of making history," MacRae said. "(The property is) not going to be any cheaper tomorrow. We’re begging you guys to come up with that money. We’ve done everything you’ve asked you asked us to do."

Bernie Levin, Citrus Springs, gave a number of reasons he said that would make the property unacceptable. "It’s zoned commercial," he said, and if that is the case the park should be put out for bid and opened up to other companies. Also, she said the setback should be 500 feet from a bar. "There was a lawsuit 10 years ago, (and) The Freezer was a focal point because of congestion." Traffic congestion increases will happen over time, he said, and an effort should be made to look at other options. "As a taxpayer, you’re going to have a private park subsidized by taxpayer money," he said.

In response to public comments, Commissioner Kitchen reminded those present for the commission meeting that every grant comes with strings, and there are many steps in the entire process. "I've said before that 'this is a 500-step process, and we’re on step 30.'" This had to be paid for with grant funds, he said, and cautioned that community groups can’t buy something and then come and ask us for the county money. He also reminded residents that he was not going to vote for anything that would use taxpayer money for the park.

Commissioner Jeff Kinnard proposed that the county staff meet with the property owner and negotiate the best price possible for the parcel, and then bring it back to the commission for an up-or-down vote.

During pubic discussion about that motion, Cullen told commissioners that people who had contacted commissioners before the meeting to disparage the project did not even live in the Homosassa area. He called those people "trolls," and not representative of the people who lived in Homosassa.

That appeared to be the wrong thing to say to Commissioner Carnahan. "Your comments turn my stomach," Carnahan said to Cullen. "They are a disgrace." Carnahan said there are people who have lived for longer than Cullen. "I would almost distance myself from people like making comments like that."

Carnahan told Cullen that he also had relatives who lived in the area, and that he had spent much of his childhood there himself.

Commissioner Coleman said that he had received a communiqué from Cullen prior to Tuesday's meeting. It contained language that, as Coleman characterized it, put out things in a mean way. "I take offense to putting down people in Homosassa," Coleman said, and he added that groups in Homosassa aren’t working together. "I want to see some cooperation with groups in Homosassa to make this project work," Coleman said.

Seemingly making peace among all parties was MacRae, whom Commissioner Kinnard referred to as "the mayor of Homosassa." MacRae noted that the hair had risen on his arms during the fiery exchanges, and he called for calm. "This (effort) has been going on for several years, MacRae said, and he noted that sometimes tempers flare in the heat of discussion. "I wouldn’t want the comments of any one person to derail this," he said at the end of his remarks.

To which Carnahan replied, "I'm glad you're here."

In the final analysis, as tempers settled down, the commission nonetheless voted 5-0 to proceed with the project.