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Side of Ranch

Are Manatee County commissioners really interested in the environment?

Crooked River Ranch acquisition is a step in the right direction for the county.

Commissioner Ray Turner emcees the celebration ceremony for the Crooked River Ranch on March 1.
Commissioner Ray Turner emcees the celebration ceremony for the Crooked River Ranch on March 1.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
  • East County
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It's going to be a confusing election year.

Manatee County organized a press conference March 1 to celebrate the $11.2 million purchase of the 68-acre Crooked River Ranch along the Manatee River.

Five of the seven Manatee County commissioners took part (George Kruse and Mike Rahn missed the ceremony) and they spoke of the importance of such acquisitions and their environmental impact.

It is the first land acquisition for Manatee County's Environmental Lands Management and Acquisitions Committee, which is a good thing since the voters overwhelmingly (71%) supported a funding source in 2020 to purchase such lands. It is finally coming to fruition.

The confusing part is that the Commission, in total, has ignored the Future Development Area Boundary, has decreased wetlands protections and has allowed development to encroach upon Lake Manatee, which supplies us with 32 million gallons of water a day.

That should leave you scratching your head and mumbling, "What the heck?"

Reducing the wetlands protections in October was a new low for commissioners, who basically spit in the face of the legions of environmental experts and residents who protested. Note that Kruse voted against reducing wetland protections and District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner was out of the country at the time of the vote.

It's just common sense that you would doubt the veracity of any statement by a commissioner who says he or she cares about the environment and then voted to reduce wetlands protections. That's what makes this all so confusing.

ELMAC couldn't be effective without the support of commissioners, who despite their track record deserve an "atta-boy" for getting the Crooked River Ranch project completed. ELMAC has other environmentally significant properties lined up, so everyone is going to have to work together to get that done.

What voters must figure out is where their district or at-large commissioners stand when it comes to environmental concerns? That is certainly just one piece, because building and maintaining roads, and building parks are important, too. The current commission has done an admirable job with the roads, has done a great job with building the Lakewood Ranch Library, and has struggled with East County parks. 

Do you think current commissioners understand the public's perception of them when it comes to environmental issues? That was a pretty big publicity splash for the Crooked River Ranch project. Is it all a show?

In January, when a panther was spotted in the Duette Preserve, Manatee County issued a press release hailing the sighting as spotlighting "Manatee County’s efforts to preserve and maintain natural habitat."

Was this particular panther just walking through to get to a county more committed to environmental concerns? Perhaps he/she was just lost.

In the release about the panther sighting, Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge was quoted as saying, “The purpose behind these preserves is to ensure that future generations have open space and green space that they can go to and enjoy."

Was this a carefully planned release to change perception from the wetlands decision?

This is for you, the voter, to sort out. And the only way to make an educated decision is to visit with your commissioners, or the candidates for each position. The District 1, District 3, District 5, and District 7 seats are up for election. Have the incumbents explain why they would reduce wetland protections and then say they support environmental concerns? Ask the same questions of the challengers, what they would have done, and what they will support in the future. Make up your own mind. Sure, it's confusing.

There is hope

If there is good news in recent developments, it is that Manatee County citizens do seem to be concerned about conservation and environmental issues.

Debi Osborne, the director Land Protection for the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, is enthusiastic about the progress of ELMAC.

The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast had reached out to Alice Hunter Bender and Elizabeth Hunter Skidmore, who had inherited Crooked Ranch from their parents (William and Janet Hunter). Osborne said the Hunter sisters listened to possibilities of a conservation easement or selling to a buyer that would conserve the land. They struck a deal and then went to Manatee County ELMAC. 

Fortunately, other landowners exist in Manatee County who are concerned about the environment as well. Osborne said her nonprofit won't "get in the middle" if Manatee County already is pursuing a property, but it is very proactive when it comes to contacting landowners and finding out their intentions.

"We must work with appraisers, public agencies, and the IRS," Osborne said. "But it all definitely depends on the landowner. We know we have to be competitive in the market."

Osborne said they currently have written to 50 landowners about protecting lands for the future. If they get a positive response, then they go looking for financing. She said Manatee County always has been interested in preserving lands, but that "We would have to fight for every penny."

With ELMAC, and the public's blessing, Manatee County now has a funding source.

"We definitely have opportunities to protect land," she said.

I asked Osborne if protecting agricultural land was high on her nonprofit's priority list. Some might argue that ranchers or farmers can damage wetlands. Would a farm, such as Dakin Dairy, be better for the environment if it was allowed to grow over and just be wild?

"We support ranching operations on these critical lands," she said. "It is absolutely critical to keep these as working lands. Farmers have gotten better so they are not polluting waterways. Agriculture is important."

She also noted that while Sarasota County has protected 33% of its lands, only 14% of Manatee County land is protected.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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