Friends of Keep Woods make preserve a reality with its relentless effort.
Christine Johnson, the president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, isn't sure what direction members of the Friends of Keep Woods group will go now their efforts resulted in the formation of the new Floyd C. Johnson and Flo Singer Johnson Preserve at Braden River.
However, she did note, "If they ever want to run for (political) office, they know now how to do it."
While the Conservation Foundation spearheaded a fundraising drive that raised $1,029,000 to go toward the preserve, Johnson said it was the Keep Woods group's relentless work over two years that convinced Manatee County to purchase a 32.9-acre parcel of land to stop it from being developed.
"Oh my gosh, yes, the Keep Woods group was the lynchpin," Johnson said. "It was a wonderfully run, textbook, grass roots campaign. The county was not going to move on this unless there was an upswell of support. They put up yard signs, passed out pamphlets, passed out petitions, knocked on doors. It was a boots-on-the-ground effort."
On May 22, the effort paid off as Manatee County closed on its $3 million land deal with Myarra Property Joint Venture, which includes Neal Communities.
Manatee County and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast then announced the permanent protection of a 44.5-acre preserve on the Braden River. The acreage includes the 32.9 acres purchased by the county and another 11.6 acres from the estate of Carl Bergstresser.
Johnson said the preserve is an example of a "true community success."
Braden Woods' Brenda Russell was one of the Friends of Keep Woods founders who reacted in January 2016 when residents heard the 32.9-acre parcel along the Braden River was going to be developed. Residents of both the River Club and Braden Woods neighborhoods were going to be affected.
"People felt passionate about preserving that property," she said.
One of the driving forces behind the formation of Friends of Keep Woods was Bergstresser, who died July 26, 2016. However, Bergstresser left a will that stated his land could not be developed and would go to a nonprofit or government that would use it for conservation.
Friends of Keep Woods went forward.
"I think two of the biggest things for us were perseverance and dedication," Russell said. "People kept saying to us, 'Pat Neal ... you're never going to get him to sell that property. You are wasting your time.'"
A group that started with three members grew to 20. Five hundred signs were placed on the lawns of homeowners in the area, identifying Friends of Keep Woods and the effort. A year later, 500 more "Vote Yes" signs asked residents to approve a municipal services taxing units to pay for the preserve.
"We did a lot of door-to-door and we stood on a lot of street corners," Russell said. "It was a big time commitment, and it was a two-year effort. We were meeting every week."
Although some members of the group had to drop out because they simply didn't have the time, new members would step forward to take their place, bringing with them fresh ideas about convincing the 1,440 homeowners surrounding the site about the importance of the preserve.
The group experienced its setbacks. Surveys taken in the area whether the residents would be willing to absorb the special tax were inconclusive. The proposed taxing district caused friction between those who felt it was the best way to purchase the land and those who thought it was an unfair tax burden.
Manatee County Commissioners turned down the formation of a municipal services taxing unit and eventually decided the money to acquire the land would come out of the already-formed special taxing district of unincorporated Manatee County.
"Now it is closed and final," Russell said. "We really did get a huge outpouring of support from people who live in Manatee County, and not just those here who were affected. People want to take a hard look at preservation. Why shouldn't we save some of our natural resources that make people want to come here?"
Russell said she has seen initial county plans for a walking trail, a river overlook and a kayak launch (for county use only) for the park, along with picnic tables and a pavilion.
"The 44.5 acres is a lot in the middle of a concrete jungle," Johnson said. "This is a place where people can get away from it all in a public setting."
The Conservation Foundation owns a conservation easement over the land, thus protecting it from development. Manatee County has committed to adding trails and improvements and will be responsible for maintenance.
"We are not totally through," Russell said. "We need to make sure it is maintained and the community could raise more funds to buy (amenities) such as a bench."
"We look forward to working with the Foundation and the community in providing the kinds of passive recreation that respects Mother Nature and the many opportunities to learn much from her on this property," said Charlie Hunsicker, the director of Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources, in a release.
Johnson said Pat Neal and his partners deserve credit for working with the county to make the preserve happen.
In the end, Russell said it was a lesson that people can get along. "We had people of a lot of different perspectives," she said of Friends of Keep Woods. "But we all came together for the common cause. There was never an argument. Yes, we can work together."