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Buzz CRAWFORDVILLE, FLA. – Cave divers may delight in the Florida Park Service’s proposal to allow recreational cave diving in a public spring.

But before divers can take to underwater spelunking, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Park Service will host a public workshop on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 to hear from the public regarding the proposed inclusion of recreational cave diving at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.

The Florida Park Service is examining proposals to provide recreational cave diving in Wakulla Spring. In an effort to solicit the views of the local community, the park’s citizen support organization and other park stakeholders, public comment will be taken before formally proposing the addition of cave diving in Wakulla Spring.

Interested parties unable to attend the public workshop on Jan. 19 may send written comments to the Division of Recreation and Parks’ Office of Park Planning, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd, Mailstation 525, Tallahassee, FL 32399.

Featuring of one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is home to an abundance of wildlife, including alligators, turtles, deer, and birds.

The public workshop will be held: at 7 p.m. at the Wakulla County Agriculture Extension Office, 84 Cedar Avenue in Crawfordville, Fla.

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BuzzDerelictVessel01DerelictVessel02_R_WaltGossettSandhillRecyclingImage 2: This boat was dumped in the water at a Yulee boat ramp; Image 3: By the time the derelict vessel was removed, it was coated with mud.

A Yulee man was sentenced to 60 days in jail and one year of probation as well as fined $1,965 for illegally dumping a derelict vessel in Nassau County.

Daniel Ray Thomas (DOB 07/02/85) was charged with third-degree felony dumping in May after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) received a call from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that a boat had been dumped in the water at Wilson Neck Boat Ramp in Yulee.

FWC Officer Tim Shearer responded to the complaint and saw the 1968 15-foot Thunderbird pleasure craft on a mud bank with the bow beginning to sink. The Florida registration was still visible.

“I wasn’t able to contact the owner to determine if the registration had been transferred. However, I did have a witness who saw the boat being dumped by the suspect,” Shearer said. “Thomas had left town, but the fact that he set the vessel adrift in the water and never registered it in his name gave probable cause that he intended to abandon it.”

Shearer met with the state attorney and filed charges against Thomas for illegal dumping in excess of 500 pounds, which is a third-degree felony.

Thomas was later arrested on the warrant and pleaded guilty to dumping the vessel. He was ordered to pay for the costs of removing the boat from the water.

“This is a prime example of what it can cost people who dump vessels that they no longer want,” said Capt. Richard Moore of the FWC’s Boating and Waterways Section.

“Abandoned and derelict vessels can pose safety and navigational hazards as well as become eyesores in Florida’s beautiful waterways,” Moore said.

The FWC has an at-risk vessel program to educate people who leave vessels on Florida’s waterways in a condition that may lead them to become derelict.

The FWC hopes this program will reduce the derelict vessel problem in the state by engaging boat owners in conversations about proper care and maintenance, requirements for vessel lighting and laws about title transfer. Someone may transfer a boat to someone else who may allow it to deteriorate. Without a proper title transfer, the original owner is still responsible.

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BuzzALACHUA COUNTY – The overall graduation rate at Alachua County’s seven high schools rose by four percentile points this year, from 83 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2011, with five of the seven schools showing gains.

Using the National Governor’s Association (NGA) formula, the stricter formula now used by the state to calculate graduation rates, the percentage of students graduating on time was up at Gainesville High (79 percent to 83 percent), Eastside (84 percent to 88 percent), Buchholz (88 percent to 92 percent), Santa Fe (82 percent to 86 percent), Professional Academies Magnet @ Loften (59 percent to 82 percent). Hawthorne fell by one percentile point (71 percent to 70 percent). And Newberry High’s rate dropped from 89 percent to 84 percent.

District officials cite a number of strategies they’ve used to boost graduation, including the expansion of various credit retrieval programs for students who fall behind on their credits after failing one or more courses. Those programs have become even more critical since state budget cuts have led to the loss of the seven period day and summer school for high schools students.

“Without that seventh period and the chance to earn credits during the summer, there’s very little margin for error,” said Sandy Hollinger, the district’s deputy superintendent for instruction and student services. “Students who fail just one course sometime during high school have to make up that credit if they’re going to graduate on time, and we’re helping them do that as much as possible.”

District officials also point to the strategy of encouraging students to take on more challenging work, such as Advanced Placement courses.

“We’ve found that the skills they develop as a result of taking those advanced courses help students in their other classes,” said Hollinger.

The overall graduation rate reported by the Department of Education for Alachua County rose from 76 percent in 2010 to 78 percent this year. That figure includes the graduation rates of more than 200 students in alternative educational settings run by outside organizations, such as the SAI Tech Charter School at the Gainesville Job Corps, the Gainesville Wilderness Institute and the Juvenile Detention Center. Although most of those students are not from Alachua County, the state includes their graduation statistics in the district’s overall rate because the facilities are located within the county.

The overall rate also includes about 50 students in Alachua County’s special needs schools and programs, such as Sidney Lanier School, A Quinn Jones and the Hospital/Homebound program.

 

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BuzzHIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs alcohol ordinance was a source of heated debate at last Thursday’s commission meeting. At the center of the controversy was a business seeking a permit to open on Main Street in downtown High Springs to sell beer, wine and liquor.  The permit request was denied in a quasi-judicial hearing during the meeting.

While the city’s new land code prohibits this type of business because of the proposed location’s proximity to a church, the permit was filed for under the city’s old land code, which is more vague.

City Planner Christian Popoli said it comes down to a matter of code interpretation. He said the city’s plan board rejected the proposal.  But Popoli is unsure of the validity of that decision since the old code had an exception to the alcohol ordinance, allowing package stores selling wine and beer for offsite consumption to be located within 500 feet of a church.

Real estate agent Damon Watson, representing the building’s owner, said it was important to remember that the owner was hoping to sell a product for offsite consumption, just like any other business downtown.

He said the building has been vacant for nine months and is in disrepair. Watson said the new owner is willing to put $150,000 into restoring the 200-year-old building.

“People will vote with their pocketbook and wallet,” he said. “Six months ago, this fell into the realm of being okay. It affects the value of the downtown area.”

Commissioner Eric May said it was essential that the commission interpret the code fairly without trying to make new law. He said he sees no problem with such a store taking up an empty storefront in the downtown area.

“Any of you have heard my diatribe on that [drinking]. But there’s no boisterous activity,” he said. “We’ve heard over and over, High Springs is not business friendly. We said we wanted to fix that.”

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said the shop should not be allowed because it is “substantially out of character with the existing neighborhood,” one of the reasons listed in the code to refuse a permit.

When May tried to respond, Mayor Dean Davis instructed him to keep it brief, leading to an argument about legal procedure. Davis banged his gavel, shouting at May that he was out of order.

Since the city denied the permit, the building’s owners have the option to appeal the decision.

Immediately following the permit denial, the commission decided to reverse the alcohol ordinance to its prior state, disallowing restaurants and bars to serve liquor within 500 feet of a church or 600 feet of a school.

Commissioners May and Sue Weller voted against the measure, which will be discussed at length at a future workshop.

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BuzzHAWTHORNE – People attending Hawthorne’s Christmas Festival and Parade on Saturday can expect homemade food, a tree lighting and some giant candy canes. In fact, there has been a competition between float builders as to who can make the largest candy cane of all.

Gilbert Randall, the parade coordinator, said there has been a fierce contest to make the largest of the iconic holiday peppermint treats.

“These people are trying to get the biggest and best-looking candy cane in town,” he said. “They are trying to make it humongous.”

The theme of the 29th annual festival is “A Candyland Christmas.” Randall said the floats in the parade are trying to mix the sweetness of the candies with religious figures to create a holiday atmosphere.

He said about 25 floats have registered so far to be in the parade. Anyone who wishes to get involved may contact the Chamber of Commerce or just come to the festivities to support the city.

“Come out and have a good old country street parade with your friends and neighbors,” he said.

Booths will be open for visitors at 11 a.m. The parade begins at 3 p.m. and travels from the Hawthorne Historical Museum and Cultural Center to the First Baptist Church, Randall said.

Mr. and Mrs. Claus will overlook the festivities, while children can enjoy pony rides and other youth activities. The sheriff and fire departments will make an appearance in the parade as guests enjoy barbecued food. There will a stage set up to showcase local musicians, as well as ballerinas and a karate class.

The parade staff members are trying to display as much local talent as possible, he said.

“We have always tried to incorporate every age group, from toddler to senior citizen, in our festival activities,” he said. “That’s been our main goal each year.”

Donna Boles, the director of the parade, said there are currently 33 vendors signed up to add to the Christmas celebration. This will be her fifth year planning the event.

“It is amazing. When it is time for the parade, the whole street is lined with people,” she said. “They all flock to it. They just love it.”

The festival will also give back to a few lucky people in this harsh economic time by raffling off ten $50 Visa cards. She said she hopes people will come out to support the vendors and local economy.

Boles, who came up with this year’s theme of a Candyland Christmas, said about 50 to 75 people will be participating in the parade this year.

She also said she is looking forward to having a good time with her neighbors.

“My favorite part is just seeing everyone,” she said. “It’s like a big homecoming.”

Randall said he believes the parade can bring the community together during the holiday season.

“It causes people not to look at the backgrounds of one another, the color of one’s skin or their choices in religion,” he said. “We all pull together to put on this event.”

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