More neighborhoods tap into Manatee County's Neighborhood Enhancement Grant program.
The list of struggling plants is long — sabal palms, saw palmettos, oak trees, wax-myrtles and beautyberries among others.
They are being suffocated by invasive Brazilian pepper trees along Old Farm Road in Mote Ranch. These are some of the plants the Mote Ranch Homeowners Association is trying to save, with some help from the Manatee County Neighborhood Enhancement Grant program.
The county’s Neighborhood Enhancement Grant program provides support to HOAs, community development districts, crime watch groups, nonprofits partnered with neighborhoods and other groups composed of residents and stakeholders from a specific neighborhood. Debbie Deleon, the manager of the Manatee County Neighborhood Connections Division, likes to say the program is a way to give back to people who pay taxes to the county and fees to their local HOAs.
“We want a nice community in which to live,” Deleon said. “If we can give you some money because you are trying to do a project, and it is going to help the community look better and unite your peeps, your community, it's a win-win for everybody."
The program receives $60,000 from the county budget each fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Deleon hopes that figure will rise soon considering the program’s rise in popularity. This year’s fund has been depleted to about $12,000 in less than five months. The program is easily on track to use its entire allotment for the first time since it started in 2018.
Each neighborhood that applies is eligible to receive grants up to $10,000 if it is willing to match the grant dollar for dollar. Grants of $1,000 or less do not require any matching. Organizations applying for grants must gain neighborhood-level approval of their projects before applying for grants, according to Deleon.
There is one caveat to the eligibility rule, according to Manatee County Neighborhood Services Coordinator Simone Peterson. Gated communities can only receive grants for projects that are outside their gates or involve removal of invasive plant species, which can spread outside the gates through spores or pollinating animals if they are not removed.
“These grants are for the public good,” Peterson said. “So if (the public) has to go and get access to your neighborhood, then it kind of has this feeling of being shut out where it's not really for the entire county.”
Grants can be provided for projects involving landscaping, community gardens, landmark restoration, neighborhood watch equipment, pedestrian safety programming and much more, in addition to removal of invasive plant species.
Mote Ranch will use its $10,000 grant to remove 50 to 60 invasive trees and bushes, primarily Brazilian pepper trees, in March. The invasive plants are located along a 1,740-foot stretch of Old Farm Road that ends at the intersection with Honore Road, according to Mote Ranch HOA Board Director Brenda Miller.
The HOA unanimously approved the project in October. Before the organization could apply for a grant, however, it had to make sure all aspects of the project were in place. Miller said that meant getting quotes from landscaping companies and approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, among other tasks. The total cost came out to about $21,000, of which the HOA will pay about $11,000, thanks to the grant.
Miller said it’s worth it to remove the invasive species that are overwhelming the native sabal palms, wax-myrtles, saw palmettos and so on. She wants to see Old Farm Road become an embodiment of “old Florida” nature.
“The point is to finally finish Old Farm Road and make it look as majestic as it does on the other side,” Miller said. “We’re blessed to have Manatee step up and give us a grant. We’re taking advantage of it.”
Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.