CRYSTAL RIVER — City council was eager Monday to have its say on a newly revised set of rules for tourist and manatee magnet Three Sisters Springs.
“It’s the only way to put on record where we stand,” Crystal River City Manager Dave Burnell said in bringing the matter before council. The city plans to address the measures in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
This new set of regulations for accessing the refuge by water limit the number of people allowed in the springs at any given time to 13, in addition to altering other rules about access and behavior at the site.
Burnell said had it not been for city staff and officials petitioning previous USFWS rules seeking further limits on access, the refuge’s swim-with program would have been eliminated entirely.
“If we can show people we can swim with the manatees, we can go back in and put more numbers in,” he said about future seasons. “The reason we have anyone swimming there is our stance.”
Council members seemed to agree, with Councilwoman Paula Wheeler expressing gratitude that the program has survived.
“We will do our best to not … abuse it, and do our due diligence … and make this a world-class destination for manatee refuges,” she said. “Responding to them is critical, but we are not going to change their minds with brute force.”
Capt. Mike Birns, president of the Manatee Eco-Tourism Association (M.E.T.A.) of Citrus County, also commented Monday, saying his group is in the process of drafting its comments, and that he would like to see USFWS widen its proposed times for in-water access from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., instead of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“That would at least increase some of the access,” he said.
Burnell said on-land access and management, now handled by the city, has been running smoothly since beginning Sunday.
The deadline to comment on the revised proposal is Nov. 23, and federal officials are expecting to implement the measures around mid-December.
City council also:
* Approved several electoral matters regarding Paula Wheeler’s expected Jan. 1 vacation of her council seat. They included changing an ordinance on its final reading to have an alternative candidate-qualifying period from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 to coincide with election requirements and approving a seven-step application for an interim council member.
* OK’d the establishment of parking and launching fees at city parks and boat ramps. For King’s Bay and Hunter Springs parks, those prices will be $1 an hour or $5 a day. The fee to launch from the ramp at Northwest Third Avenue will be $7.50; at Pete’s Pier, it will be $5. Annual passes allowing unlimited parking and launching will be available for $50 and $100, respectively, for non-commercial and commercial use. The fees will go toward personnel and city amenities.
* Approved a retainer of $5,000 per month, up to $60,000 per year, to Southern Strategies Group of Tampa, which will lobby state lawmakers to fund major city projects, such as the Riverwalk or additional boat ramps.
At an earlier meeting, council members, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency:
* Heard an update on the status of the Riverwalk project, which will connect downtown areas with the city’s waterfront businesses along the northern edge of Cedar Cove. City staff and consultants designing conceptual routes for the venture met last week with 10 major property owners to discuss a variety of routes that will affect them. Burnell said some owners voiced some concerns, especially the need for more parking.
* Approved a motion for staff to collect stakeholder opinions on a waterfront overlay district within the CRA. This district is being established to write up alternative land-development requirements for commercial waterfront businesses in order to promote future growth. The gathering will be in December.
* Voted down a request from the Crystal River Boat Builders to co-locate behind the Coastal Heritage Museum off Citrus Avenue. Surrounding business owners petitioned against the co-location due to potential restrictions on access and parking. Representatives from the group said they were not locked into the location.