A master plan for a Manatee County trail system is taking shape.
Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker has watched progress unfold for over two decades on a system of interconnected recreational trails, known as the Gateway Trail, in Manatee County.
He said the county has had many other priorities to fill, but that current developments, including the acquisition of potential easements, promise to fill significant amounts of missing segments of the proposed system.
The proposed trail system would join trails from Sarasota County in the south, to Hillsborough County in the north, in an effort to become part of the SUN Trail Network that exists statewide.
The Manatee County portion of the trail would pass through Lakewood Ranch, generally along the east side of Bourneside Boulevard, and would serve walkers, runners, cyclists, and in many cases, horseback riders.
Hunsicker estimated the cost of implementing a Manatee County trail master plan, which would cover what he said was “easily” more than 20 miles, at “10s of millions of dollars.”
The plan unfolds
One of the new developments Hunsicker said excites him is a series of “very serious” conversations between County Administrator Scott Hopes and Florida Power & Light regarding potential easements for certain properties in Manatee County.
Although Hopes has been in talks with the company on other issues, Hunsicker said, his positive relationship with FPL has helped to realize important goals related to the trail.
One such easement involves the Waterbury Grapefruit subdivision in Myakka City, located at the point where the trail makes its way northward along Bourneside Boulevard.
The property is located along an FPL transmission line, which extends from Parrish to the Bobwhite station in Sarasota County and passes through that subdivision, Hunsicker said.
Hunsicker said transmission line corridors such as these will be ideally suited to horseback riding, for those who do not wish to use the sidewalk can simply move onto the land beside the power lines.
“It’s not a skinny, 5-foot thing,” he said. “It’s 100 feet wide and sometimes wider.”
Hunsicker said while these properties exist for the purpose of performing maintenance on power lines, Florida law allows them to be included in the trail as long as FPL does not assume responsibility for any injuries.
Other FPL easements will follow.
A trail map showed FPL easements at various locations, including a stretch of trail north of Lake Parrish, and west of the lake just south of the town of Willow.
Both of these segments belong to different ends of a large eastern loop in the trail, which extends from Parrish to Duette, and they meet at a segment of trail which extends from Ellenton to the Hillsborough County border.
Hunsicker said other important potential easements will come into play. Despite initially making little progress, he said, it appears that the county will be able to obtain an easement for the railroad tracks that cover the aforementioned stretch of land.
For part of the distance, users of the trail would travel alongside the tracks, switching from the east side to the west side as they head south past Dickie Road.
South of U.S. 301, Hunsicker said, the track would be removed, allowing users to walk atop the approximately 15-foot-wide track space, which is elevated above the surrounding wetlands. The steel of the track would likely be picked up and stored on either side of the railroad bed, while the ties would be discarded.
One of the major obstacles to completion of the trail plans are negotiations with landowners north of Edward W. Chance Preserve adjacent to the Manatee River.
He said the county has made a large step in the right direction in that regard as Falkner Farms Group, a major landowner in the area, including throughout the large eastern loop on the trail, has been receptive to the county’s plans.
Trail maps showed Falkner Farms as owning four out of the six private land parcels in the eastern trail loop from Parrish to Duette.
“They have no requirement at all to cooperate, but they are,” he said. “We’re not asking them to make rock solid commitments at this time. This is very much a cooperative partnership here.”
Hunsicker said progress on the Lakewood Ranch segments of the trail is already about 90% complete, as Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has already provided trails in the area. He said the Lakewood Ranch segment would be the first to see completion.
The trail experience
As the trail enters Manatee County from the south, Hunsicker said it will pass through the Waterside area. He said planners working for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in Sarasota County have laid out a preliminary pathway from Fruitville Road through Waterside.
The trail winds through downtown Sarasota to pick up the Legacy Trail near Payne Park, as well as another planned trail in Sarasota County.
Moving northward, the trail will expand to a 10-foot, in some cases 12-foot, sidewalk along eastern Bourneside Boulevard as it crosses into Manatee County, and remaining in this form all the way to State Road 64. Some concrete pathways within Lakewood Ranch will follow sidewalks, while others will take their own direction.
He said the fact that this segment of the trail will be an urban, rather than natural, experience did not disappoint him at all.
“It’s a testament to the quality of the SMR developments,” he said. “As you drive along the major roadways, you’re not seeing rows of driveways and homes. You’re seeing landscape buffering already — high berms, decorative fencing, landscaping.”
He said as these roads will be paved, the feasibility of horseback riding in the area will be low to moderate, although it will increase as users reach the northern areas.
He said beginning at Rye Preserve, and Ed Chance preserve, users have the opportunity to ride on horseback, as the trail makes its eastern loop.
“If you want an Appalachian Trail experience, it’s going to be from Rye Preserve back to Moody Branch,” he said. “You won’t run into a home. Horseback riding, cycling, walking. It will be a tremendous opportunity there to take advantage of lands we already own.”
He said these eastern areas would contain their own additional smaller loops.
Funding the project
Hunsicker said the county is looking at a variety of funding sources.
At the state level is a highly competitive state grant program for greenways, with funds usually limited to $500,000, which builds about a mile of trail, he said. He said local legislators, who have always been supportive of the initiative, would be important in his area.
He said some funds had been received from the Palmetto Trails Network at Washington Park, and that the county also has its own funding sources including impact fees and some sales taxes.
The trails will have a place among the county’s legislative priorities for the year, as confirmed by the Manatee County Commission Dec. 13.
The trail is absent from the county’s main priorities, which consist of only road infrastructure and transit projects. However, commissioners chose to highlight the trail in a separate section of their proposals to legislators, without a dollar amount attached, after At-Large Commissioner George Kruse brought the item to the board’s attention.
Kruse called the original county proposal of $950,000 to fund the trails “very nominal” and said the county’s priorities should be to show that the commission was focused not only on roads, but on a variety of projects.
He also noted that SMR, and potentially the December 2022 federal omnibus bill, could provide funding for the trail, noting that the state was already seeking funds from that bill for a missing section of the trail in Sumter County.
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh expressed concern about taking on any additional costs.
“We’re already asking for almost $30 million, and the state’s not going to give us that much money,” Baugh said.
Kruse said it was possible that funding for trails would be allocated from a separate source that might be underutilized, due to Florida counties placing their focus on roads.
County Administrator Scott Hopes said the Florida Legislature had set aside about $20 billion in reserves, and that a budget estimate conference in mid-March would decide the amount that could be allocated to trails.
He said based on his consultations with a state staff expert in trails, funding would come from the Office of the Greenway Trail in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with which he said the county has a highly positive working relationship.
“We’re going to have to follow our priorities right now, and some of them are not building a trail through the middle and eastern Manatee County, but that’s what a plan is about,” Hunsicker said on Jan. 20.
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.