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East County Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017 1 year ago

Braden Woods group hopes to preserve options

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Friends of Keep Woods wants to educate the public about potential park.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Braden Woods’ Brenda Russell, Gary Hebert and Phil St. John say they are looking into a kaleidoscope, waiting for all the colored pieces to shift into the right place.

As members of Friends of Keep Woods, an organization formed to preserve land from development, they have a picture in mind. It’s a 33-acre park at the western end of Clubhouse Drive. It will connect, eventually, to an 11-acre site also along the Braden River. Together, the land will offer an oasis for wildlife and recreational opportunities for those in River Club and Braden Woods. It would be called Braden River Preserve.

Now, all they need is about $3 million to buy it.

“This is an opportunity,” Russell said. “We believe the more people understand what’s at risk, the more people will support it. Public education is a big aspect for us.”

After months of discussions with Manatee County officials, the trio learned the county likely will not support the formation of a Municipal Services Benefit Unit to fund the purchase of the land and the creation of the park. Using the MSBU mechanism, Manatee County would potentially have purchased the land and paid itself back by assessing a specific group of “benefiting” properties — about 1,500 in all. Costs per household were estimated at $140 annually for 30 years, Russell said.

The county’s legal staff advised against the scenario saying it could be challenged.

Another option could be a Municipal Services Taxing District, but how such a district would be set up has not been determined.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said the county is “exploring options” for obtaining the property, but it is too early to release details publicly.

Friends of Keep Woods is focused on its efforts to collecting private donations or to find a conservationist willing to buy the land and put a conservation easement over it.

“We’re under a lot of time pressure,” Russell said. “We really can’t afford to wait while the county figures out the process. This is an area that doesn’t need to be rehabilitated. It just needs to be saved.

“If we don’t raise the funds, it will be developed.”

Working with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, Friends of Keep Woods expects to launch a series of community meetings in September to educate neighbors about development plans for the property and their hope to make it a neighborhood preserve.

Without a county-supported means to acquire the property, Keep Woods will narrow its focus to what it can do on its own, although discussions with Manatee County officials will continue.

Russell said the community meetings will foster awareness about plans to develop the property as well as the community and ecological benefits of saving it.

In October 2016, developer Neal Communities applied to build 32 luxury homes on the site and eliminate a future extension of Clubhouse Drive across the Braden River. The Manatee County Planning Commission opposed the project, saying removal of the road needed to be done through a different process — and Neal scrapped the project. The property was purchased in December by Myarra Property Joint Venture, of which Neal’s owner, Pat Neal, is involved.

In August, Manatee County commissioners recommended removal of the road and the request is now under state review.

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