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East County Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2022 3 days ago

County committee to recommend land for acquisition, conservation

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The Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee plans to have recommendations for land purchases to the County Commission by November.
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

Staff of the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee said they are diligently working toward utilizing the $50,000 in funds they were provided by the Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum passed in November 2020.

Responsibilities of the largely volunteer-staffed committee, which was established in 1993, have always included offering conservation recommendations to the Manatee County Commission, but this is the first time the committee has been provided with a dedicated funding source.

The referendum issued up to $50 million in bonds, repaid by a .15 mill ad valorem tax, for the acquisition of lands the committee recommends, if they are approved by county commissioners.

Debra Woithe, ELMAC’s liaison with the public and only paid staff member, said the organization is now getting closer to being able to utilize the funds. She said in a special work session in November, ELMAC will be ready to present its findings to the commission.

Charlie Hunsicker, the county natural resources director, said it will likely be spring 2023 before commissioners can act on those recommendations and buy properties, due partly to the arrival of new commissioners in November, whom he said will have other priorities as they begin their terms.

Conservatory Park in the University Park area is among the lands acquired by the county in the past, with nature trails among its features. (Photo by Ian Swaby)

 

Investigating properties

Hunsicker said the committee’s recommendations are focused purely on the environment, different from what commissioners would receive from land developers, who would be the alternative recommenders of properties.

“We’re lucky that we’re working with very geologic criteria, not market criteria,” Hunsicker said. “Our geologic criteria are water, soil, which provide habitat for important plants and animals of Florida. … It doesn’t matter who owns it or where it is. We would go after it for no reason other than species protection.”

Woithe said that thus far, 79 properties have been nominated as potential recommendations to commissioners, 75 of which meet ELMAC’s basic natural resource criteria. Out of that number, 66 have owners who are interested in selling, and nine are being reviewed and prioritized by ELMAC for recommendation.

Woithe said site visits, a required step in the process, have been performed for about 10 properties thus far.

The number of properties eventually acquired will be determined by the limits of funds.

Anyone, including members of the public, can use a form provided on MyManatee.org to nominate properties.

ELMAC Chair Scott Tussing said properties range widely in location, from the far reaches of the county to the beach.

“We’re looking at coastal environments, wetlands, uplands, prairies and all sorts of other things,” he said.

Current properties ELMAC has prioritized in or near the East County area are 948 acres in the Myakka City area between Wauchula Road and Pine Level Road and 38 acres just north of the Manatee River currently owned by Gospel Crusade Inc.

A database online at MyManatee.org provides information on all properties under consideration, as well as nominated properties.

A spicebrush swallowtail butterfly comes to a rest in Conservatory Park, in the University Park area. (Photo by Ian Swaby)

Tussing said a January update of the ELMAC ordinance, which designated the committee as the one specifically authorized to determine spending of the $50 million, allowed the committee to begin examining properties.

Tussing said that after changing its focus to the properties themselves around May 2022, the organization is moving “diligently,” though appraisals and environmental surveys involved in the investigative process consume significant amounts of time.

Woithe said the committee currently meets once every two months but might consider monthly meetings as needed.

Although Tussing is responsible for overseeing the meetings and operations of ELMAC, he attributes the successful creation and execution of its processes to Woithe.

Woithe’s responsibilities include contacting property owners to determine their interest. She said when she cannot reach an owner, ELMAC sends a letter with a check box that allows them to provide a “yes” or “no” statement.

Only in the case that a willing seller exists does ELMAC reveal to the public that a property is under consideration.

Woithe said there are multiple facets to working with property owners. Owners might have multiple relatives who must all be contacted. Agreements must be reached, for instance, when an owner wishes to stay on the property for the remainder of their life, before it is sold. There is also legal paperwork to fill.

Woithe also fulfills other responsibilities, such as administering public meetings, building the dashboard for viewing the properties and developing information to present to ELMAC members and commissioners.

Tussing said the process consumes not only time but funds as well.

“$50 million sounds like a lot of money,” he said. “But with the cost of acreage these days, it’s not going to go as far as people think.”

He said the organization must choose carefully what properties it recommends.

Although commissioners previously expressed concern that announcements of properties under consideration would drive up land prices, ELMAC has a mechanism to prevent this from occurring: The county will pay no more than the appraised value of a property.

Woithe said that normally there will be two appraisals performed. If the results fall within 20% of one another, the county will offer the average price. If they are further apart, a third appraisal will be performed.

She also said sometimes landowners have an incentive to sell due to IRS tax benefits for conservation-related sales.

 

Criteria for preservation

Staff said the nature of properties investigated by ELMAC varies widely, as do the criteria that are considered.

Woithe said nominated properties vary in their attributes, but staff only consider those of substantial size. She said factors considered include the acquisition cost before the appraisal, the cost of maintenance and the availability of public access for paddling, hiking, riding horses, hunting or other activities.

Tussing said other factors include connectivity to other environmental lands for the sake of wildlife and people, the ability to maintain or supplement flora and fauna and the ability to preserve water and keep it cleaner.

Also considered are long-term management costs, for trails and facilities will be installed. Woithe said while Manatee County will be responsible for a majority of the costs, it is possible there will be partnerships involved with other organizations on the maintenance of certain properties.

“Luckily, working for this board of county commissioners, our mission is pretty pure,” Hunsicker said. “We’re trying to find the best scrub jay habitat — can you believe it? We’re trying to find the best growing-all habitat. We’re trying to find the best property that will keep our drinking water clean.”

 

Volunteers

County staff said the volunteer base of the board is functioning robustly.

Although the county advertised five volunteer position vacancies in August, with the position of an environmental group member still vacant, Woithe said these vacancies were related to expiring terms, as well as one staff member leaving the county.

“Right now, I think people are more than willing to be involved,” Tussing said. He said the public perceives the committee’s goal as important, and it has been receiving numerous applications.

Tussing said the board’s number of seats increased from about 12 to 17 since the referendum. In 2021, the board moved to revise many positions to district-specific seats.

He called its staff “very well rounded.”

“There is a lot of site expertise and a lot of knowledge bases to draw from, to make better decisions,” he said.

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