About 2,000 more acres of eastern county ranchlands to be preserved with conservation easements

County Commission approves action with funding from Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program

Jim Strickland, vice chair of the Florida Conservation Group, addresses the commissioners on Nov. 19. News Leader image

Thanks to a funding mechanism Sarasota County voters approved 20 years ago, approximately 2,000 more acres of ranchland in the eastern part of the county will be protected from development.

On Nov. 19, the County Commission unanimously authorized county staff to acquire conservation easements over approximately 1,272.6 acres of the Panning Ranch and 776 acres of the Gant Ranch. The expense for the Panning property will be $2,545,200, according to a Nov. 19 staff memo. For the Gant Ranch, the expense will be $1,546,000, a separate memo adds.

The money will come from the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP), the memos explained. In March 1999, voters first approved the ESLPP “to protect native habitats,” a county webpage points out. They voted again in November 2005 to extend the program, which is funded by a 0.25-mill property tax. That second referendum will maintain the tax through 2029, the county webpage adds.

Because the conservation easement proposals were on the County Commission’s Nov. 19 Consent Agenda of routine business items, Commissioners Alan Maio pulled them for comments. Commissioner Nancy Detert also had asked that the Gant Ranch easement item be pulled, she told her colleagues.

First, however, during the Open to the Public comment period at the start of that regular meeting, Jim Strickland, vice chair of the Florida Conservation Group, addressed the commissioners. Referring to his organization, he said, “We’re comprised of scientists and ranchers, and we represent about 3 million acres across the state of Florida of ranches that want to be protected.”

On behalf of the Conservation Group, which is based in Venice, he continued, “I’m here to say, ‘Thank you’ for your foresight and your vision and your wisdom of protecting these lands in the past.”

He had spoken one-on-one with most of the board members over the past couple of years, Strickland added. The easements on the agenda that day, he pointed out, were “a long time coming. … This land, this wildlife, this water, the connectivity” to neighboring areas — including the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve and Myakka River State Park — “is very important.”

In his comments before the vote, Maio explained, “These two properties are on the northern side of State Road 72, right at the DeSoto county line.”

This graphic provides information about the Gant property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Gants and the Pannings, he continued, have been “great stewards” of the land.

Further, Maio said, Strickland and Julie Morris, president of the Florida Conservation Group, “are trying their best to help us craft a resource there of conservation lands.”

Detert added, “This is a great thing we are doing with our Environmentally Sensitive Lands [Program] purchases,” noting the size of the Gant property. “This is the way to preserve land. Instead of fighting over it later, let’s capture as much as we can and keep it as pristine as we can for as long as we can.”

Detert made the motion to approve the agenda items, and Maio seconded it.

The county staff memos about both the Gant and Panning properties note that the parcels are bordered by the Longino Ranch to the south and the Walton and Carlton ranches to the west, “all protected lands through the [ESLPP].” They also are within what has been designated the Eastern Ranchlands Protection Priority Site, which the County Commission approved for inclusion in the ESLPP in 1998, the memos add.

The Panning land comprises four parcels, the applicable staff memo explains. The northern parcel, which consists of about 150.48 acres, fronts on State Road 72. “All four parcels abut the Gant property,” the memo notes.

This graphic shows details of the Panning Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Gant and Panning lands contain “mesic flatwoods, mesic hammock, pine flatwoods, dry prairie, depression marsh, and wetland habitats,” the memos point out. “Animal species noted on the [the properties] are the white-tailed deer, bobcat, river otter, American alligator, gopher tortoise, sandhill crane, wood stork, roseate spoonbill, bald eagle, crested caracara, red-shouldered hawk and pileated woodpecker,” the memos say. Among the plant species identified on the lands are “longleaf pine, slash pine, live oak, southernmagnolia, southern red cedar, cabbage palm, saw palmetto, beautyberry, wild coffee, gallberry, American holly, common persimmon, giant air plant, cardinal air plant and wild orchids.”

Appraisals supported the purchase price in each case, according to the staff memos.

Ancillary costs associated with concluding the work on the conservation easements are estimated to be $39,592 for the Panning Ranch and $37,954 for the Gant property.

In both cases, the memos say, the sellers will maintain ownership, and cattle ranching will continue on the land. Neither the Gant nor the Panning parcels will be open to the public, the memos point out.