On FL’s Rainbow River, something nearly miraculous happened: A developer listened to reason

August 13, 2020 7:00 am

Jim Gissy proposed what he called an “eco-resort” for the Rainbow River. When people in Dunnellon raised a fuss about it, he listened. Credit: Jim Gissy.

One of the most delightful ways to spend a summer day in Florida is to ride an inner tube down a spring-fed river.

I’ve probably tubed down Marion County’s Rainbow River half a dozen times. Except for one time when I got turned around backward and nearly ran over a family of frolicking otters, that four-hour float has always been a great way to relax.

Lately, though, the people who love the Rainbow River have been sounding the alarm about something they viewed as a major threat: a proposed development that they feared would pollute the water and put thousands more tubers into the river at a time when it’s already at or past its capacity to handle crowds.

Volunteers knocked on doors all over Dunnellon to spread the word. Hundreds wrote to government officials to express their outrage. Thousands signed a petition.

And then, last week, something nearly miraculous happened. Someone listened.

Not the government. The developer.

Here’s what happened:

Jim Gissy, 64, is a motormouthed Florida native who hails from Starke. He’s one of those guys who occasionally refers to himself in the third person, for instance: “Jim Gissy’s the largest private landowner on the Rainbow River.”

He wanted to use 89 acres of his riverfront ranch property to build what he called “an eco-friendly resort.” The project would feature a hotel, a restaurant, 250 spots for recreational vehicles, and what he called luxury “glamping” in tents with air conditioning. The whole thing, he told me this week, would have “a Cracker theme — you know, Florida Cracker.”

Gissy told me he would never have thought about launching such a project on his own. But two years ago, he said, the editor of a local paper (who’s no longer there) encouraged him to do something to create jobs for people in Dunnellon.

Before that, he had sold half of his river frontage to the state to protect it from development and had expected to sell the state the rest someday.

“Nobody has done as much to preserve the river as me,” he boasted.

Gissy is a vice president at Westgate Resorts, which is run by David Siegel, most famous for the 90,000 square foot Central Florida mansion he and his wife Jackie were building in the documentary The Queen of Versailles.

When Gissy proposed his Rainbow River resort, he told everyone he planned to model it after one that Westgate runs along the Kissimmee River in Polk County. That one includes a rodeo, by the way.

More than 100 people packed Dunnellon City Hall last fall for a presentation on the project. The main speaker was Gissy, whom the local Riverland News described quite accurately as delivering his pitch with “his charismatic, fast-talking Southern flair.”

One of the people in that crowd was Burt Eno, president of Rainbow River Conservation. Curious about what Gissy had planned, Eno drove over to visit the Polk rodeo resort.

“I came away with a terrible taste in my mind about the thing,” Eno told me.

As Eno likes to point out, the Rainbow River is a national natural landmark, a Florida Outstanding Water, an aquatic preserve, and a Surface Water Improvement and Management Act priority water body. It’s fed by Rainbow Springs, one of the state’s largest, which pumps out more than 400 million gallons of water a day.

Yet the river already is suffering from pollution from fertilizer and septic waste that stimulates the growth of algae blooms. Eno could foresee Gissy’s development making that worse.

Meanwhile, so many people are tubing down the river now that “people talk about being able to walk across the river on tubers and not get your feet wet,” he said. Someone needs to do a capacity study of the river to see where the cutoff should be on users, he said, but nobody seems to know how to do it or how to pay for it.

Yet Gissy’s development would pack even more people and tubes in there — up to 65 an hour, according to an application he filed. Plus, his plans called for closing off public access to a well-known fishing hole.

The Rainbow River is one of those natural landmarks that local people feel possessive about, as if it’s their personal treasure. When Eno rallied his troops to oppose the project, he found that “the response was overwhelming. People didn’t think the river could take it.”

He got some support from another group to which he belongs, the Florida Springs Council. The council’s members lined up lawyers to sue and cranked out hundreds of fliers and yard signs.

“We literally could not keep up with the demand for yard signs,” said Ryan Smart, the council’s executive director.

Gissy was surprised at the vehemence of the opposition. The people who didn’t like what he was doing “got on the Instagram and the other sites like that,” he said, “and they got a lot of people riled up.” The yard signs saying he was going to ruin the river really got under his skin.

He conceded that the crowds of tubers, especially the younger ones, are damaging the river because they don’t realize what they’re doing: “I don’t want to use the word ‘dumb,’ so I’ll use the word ‘unenlightened.’” But he contended that that’s not a good reason to oppose any development that would create jobs.

Gissy says he had been assured that three of the five Dunnellon council members were on his side, but they seemed to be the only ones backing him.

Meanwhile the cost of trying to line up all the permits he needed kept getting more and more expensive. He had to get dock permits from the state and a zoning change from the county and a $25,000 traffic study to satisfy the city. He had always thought of his ranch as a place to relax, and now it was causing him nothing but headaches.

At last fall’s meeting, Gissy had told the crowd, “If you guys don’t want us to [build it], I ain’t going to.” Last week, he surprised the opponents by pulling the plug. He withdrew his permit applications and announced he would not build the resort. The ranch would remain a ranch.

“Without the people supporting it, I didn’t see the point of doing it,” he explained. “If the people can’t see it, that’s God telling me not to do it.”

Until Gissy gave in, Smart and Eno were sure he would get all his permits and that they would have to raise money for an expensive court battle. Instead, they issued press releases thanking him for his strategic retreat and breathed a big sigh of relief.

When I talked to Eno, one question occurred to me that no one had brought up. Remember the old Florida Department of Community Affairs? From its inception in 1986, that department served as a watchdog on the state’s growth, making sure that new development didn’t create urban sprawl, didn’t overload roads or strain the water supply.

The department repeatedly angered developers, builders, consultants, bankers — all the folks who saw nothing wrong with putting thousands of new homes on a barrier island with a two-lane bridge to the mainland and no sewer system, or plunking down a new “town” in the middle of what had been a tomato field a half hour drive from the nearest fire station.

They disliked the constant reminders that growth never pays for itself unless there are impact fees.

In 2011, with the full support of newly elected Gov. Rick Scott, the Legislature abolished the agency. They replaced it with the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is supposed to help local governments find a way to say yes to everything.

The only way people fed up with runaway growth can stop things now is with massive public displays of opposition, such as the one the folks in Dunnellon put on, and, frequently, expensive lawsuits.

Eno said he remembered the old Department of Community Affairs very well, and always thought highly of its work. What if, I asked, that department were still around today? What if Gissy’s eco-lodge plan had been required to undergo that kind of serious state review?

“Oh,” Eno said, “they would have killed it.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.