After Manatee County’s Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee was given its first dedicated funding source through the Parks Projects Referendum overwhelmingly passed by the voters in 2020, its staff has been working to find the right properties to buy.
In 2023, voters should finally see how that funding will lead to environmentally significant land purchases. ELMAC, which has yet to purchase such a property, is considering three parcels that run along the eastern Manatee River and one parcel in the highlands of Owen Creek, east of Myakka City.
Debra Woithe, Manatee County’s liaison for ELMAC, said these areas were selected after the organization reviewed a dozen properties — with willing sellers — that were deemed to have above-average natural resource value.
All of the properties have received authorization from ELMAC’s board for its members to create work plans and prepare recommendations that will be sent to the county commissioners at a still undetermined date.
Woithe said she was pleased with the organization’s progress thus far.
“ELMAC is doing a great job,” she said. “We are looking forward to taking the recommendations to the commission so we can get to work and begin purchases.”
Woithe said Manatee County staff members will continue to review qualified properties and contact property owners to ask if they are interested in participating in the voluntary program for conservation acquisition.
Manatee River properties join lineup
During a Jan. 9 ELMAC board meeting, members voted to approve the latest authorization for work plans, which included three parcels north and south of the Manatee River alongside Upper Manatee River Road.
The area being considered includes two adjoining parcels north of the river, the westernmost of which is 37.916 acres in size and is owned by Gospel Crusade Inc., the organization that manages Christian Retreat directly across the river.
An adjoining property to the east is 30.884 acres and is owned by RETR LLC and had been planned for use as flood mitigation.
The most recent addition, which is 25.97 acres, is located along Williams Road on the south side of the river and aligns with the boundary of the second parcel.
ELMAC Chair Scott Tussing said that although the Gospel Crusade property was one of the first examined by ELMAC since the referendum, they haven’t been able to move forward until now because they didn’t have proper access, which was needed because they thought the property would have great value as a park.
Formerly, the only access had been from the river by using the Christian Retreat property’s dock. Buying the adjoining eastern parcel would allow a better point for public access.
Woithe had initially been in talks with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast about a conservation easement for that parcel, and she eventually wondered why the county should not simply purchase both properties.
Woithe said the Gospel Crusade-owned parcel already contains the makings of a park, as the site includes a clubhouse, a 1950s home, which could potentially serve as a visitor’s center, and existing trails, boardwalks and pavilions, although roads would need to be cleared and a parking area created.
She said the habitats involved in the Williams Road property include mesic hammock, flat woods and black water river, and she said some rare plants have been noted by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.
The property formerly contained a pasture, she said. She said the owner was “very keen” on restoration and had planted more than 500 longleaf pines, a quarter of which survived, and had plans to plant another 250.
Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker complimented the proposed unity of the three properties along the Manatee River.
“The connectivity of this property is fabulous relative to a goal to identify and protect those natural areas remaining on the Manatee River in our urban area,” he said. “This is a good opportunity from a willing seller to help us advance our goals.”
He said coupled with areas along the river already owned by the county, it gives an opportunity to have unique areas on both sides of the river that are becoming rare.
Hunsicker said Devil’s Elbow is one example of a strip of property that the county already owns that is environmentally important.
Located directly west of the three parcels under consideration, that property exists inside a large northward bend in the river and, Hunsicker said, was acquired in the mid-1990s as a way to prevent flooding and evacuation needs when the dam at Lake Manatee had to release large quantities of water.
He said he would be in talks with Manatee County Utilities to find out whether that department could assist in the acquisition cost for the new properties, due to its relationship to the dam.
Owen Creek Highlands
In late 2022, ELMAC also authorized work plans for a 947.84-acre property in the highlands of Owen Creek in Myakka City. The property is located in the easternmost portion of Manatee County, directly at its border with Hardee County.
Tussing said the property is relatively undisturbed, with much of it in its native state, having been cow pasture throughout its history.
Woithe said while the owner of that property is currently entertaining offers, the individual had not fully committed to conservation efforts.
She and Hunsicker joined with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to talk about the importance of that parcel of land with Florida Forever, a section of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
She said Florida Forever’s process of determining the property’s eligibility for funding — to help with the county’s purchase — will take about 18 months. Florida Forever representatives are expected to make a site visit in February.
Funding of properties
Board member and former Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac said that after having reviewed ELMAC’s budget, she was concerned about whether it could support the property acquisitions.
“We look at all this land, and we love it. We want to protect it; we want to do something. But the board has to make sure that meets the budget,” she said.
She said the budget was tight, even with the ability to bond for $50 million.
However, Hunsicker said there were no concerns.
He said the county’s environmental millage gave a continuous funding stream that will bring the organization $7 million this year, with the amount increasing as the property values go up.
ELMAC does not publicly disclose its offers to purchase the environmentally significant land.
Ian Swaby is a reporter for the East County Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands. You will find Ian at everything from Music on Main in Lakewood Ranch to Manatee County Commission meetings.