County Commission focuses on public access plans for its natural areas over the next five years as part of the 2017 fiscal year budget process
In considering public access improvements Sarasota County can and cannot afford for its nature preserves over the next five years, Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed to one issue that made no sense to her last week — and won board consensus to change a project ranking.
As the commissioners reviewed proposals for use of revenue from the county’s 1-cent surtax program — as part of its 2017 fiscal year budget discussions — Robinson asked why restrooms for the southern portion of Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve were among the unfunded projects, while a restroom/pavilion for the Scherer Thaxton Preserve was on the five-year list. The latter infrastructure — slated for the 2021 fiscal year at a cost of $560,000 — includes a fishing pier and access conforming to the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Deer Prairie Creek South project calls for an ADA trail, ADA kayak launch and a pedestrian bridge over Deer Prairie Creek.
The county has owned the Deer Prairie Creek preserve a lot longer than the Scherer Thaxton property, Robinson told staff. (The county’s website says the property was purchased between 2000 and 2004.) How did the project at the Scherer Thaxton natural area “jump the list?” she asked.
Jon Robinson, manager of natural area parks, preserves and trails in the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained that staff had been considering a number of factors, including the effects of the new Honore Avenue Extension — with housing growth expected in that area — as well as the fact that a trail connection has been completed from Scherer Thaxton Preserve through the adjacent Oscar Scherer State Park and on to The Legacy Trail, and that connection is getting a lot of publicity. Staff expects the Scherer Thaxton Preserve to see a lot more use, he added.
However, he told Commissioner Robinson, staff is at work on the design of the Deer Prairie Creek Preserve facilities, recognizing their importance. “That should be our key signature preserve,” he added of Deer Prairie Creek, because it extends from Interstate 75 to U.S. 41, with an entrance on U.S. 41.
Additionally, Jon Robinson said, Deer Prairie Creek Preserve has “a beautiful pond” with flat water he called ideal for canoeing and kayaking, with a connection to the Myakka River and Deer Prairie Creek itself.
“That’s one [preserve] that we’re going to be putting a lot of emphasis on,” Jon Robinson told Commissioner Robinson.
The county’s website says the 6,439-acre preserve contains a variety of native habitats, including pine flatwoods, prairie hammock and seasonal wetlands. It includes nearly 6 miles of the east bank of the Myakka River. Among the wildlife found there, the website notes, are gopher tortoises, river otter, wild turkeys, Florida scrub jays, swallow-tail kites and “an assortment of wading birds.” It also has more than 70 miles of hiking trails that are unpaved, the website notes.
The south entrance to the preserve is located at 10201 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice.
The Scherer Thaxton Preserve, whose address is 13125 Honore Ave., has 287 acres of habitat ranging from pine flatwoods to mesic hammocks. Its grand opening was in the spring of 2014, the county website says, noting that former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton “led the effort to protect additional lands adjacent to the park.”
Among activities that take place in that preserve are biking, birding, fishing, hiking, paddling and wildlife viewing, the website points out.
As for the Carlton Reserve, Jon Robinson continued on April 27, “the restroom that is out there is working. … It’s meeting our needs fairly well.”
The place where such a facility will be needed more urgently, he indicated, is at the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park in North Port, because the city is working on a Legacy Trail connector involving that park. However, Jon Robinson said, that facility is an infrastructure matter for the City of North Port, not the county.
“I don’t disagree with you that [restrooms] are not needed in both spots,” Commissioner Robinson responded, referring to the Scherer Thaxton and Deer Prairie Creek preserves. Nonetheless, she continued, Deer Prairie Creek opened first, “and we still don’t have a restroom out there,” which results in underutilization of the park by the public. “I just don’t agree with the ranking,” she added of the staff proposals. “It’s a long way into that park, too,” she noted of Deer Prairie Creek Preserve.
Commissioner Robinson said she would rank the Deer Prairie Creek project ahead of the one for the Scherer Thaxton Preserve.
“I agree,” Commissioner Carolyn Mason said.
“I think you’re hearing a consensus,” Chair Al Maio told Jon Robinson.
Updates on access to natural areas
Just two days after the County Commission discussion, County Administrator Tom Harmer provided a Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department update to the County Commission regarding initiatives to improve public access to county-owned natural areas. It is a follow-up to information delivered to the commissioners in February.
The following are among the details the latest report provides:
- At Deer Prairie Creek Preserve, printed trail maps have been updated and are available on-site and on the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources webpage.
- At the Shamrock Park and Nature Center (3900 Shamrock Drive, Venice), a new Scrub Habitat interpretative sign has been framed and installed near the hand-painted Nature Center wall mural depicting scrub species and plants. Additionally, the Kids Corner has been enhanced with seating sized for adults and children, a bookcase with books, and children’s art; and a 1-mile Gopher Tortoise Trail has been identified, with signs being erected and the trail map updated.
- A Carlton Complex (1800 Mabry Carlton Parkway, Venice) Trailhead (at the north entrance of Carlton Ranch) is being developed for public access from State Road 72 into the preserve. Once completed, the trail network will connect the Carlton Complex, the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park and Walton Ranch.
- At the Pinelands Reserve Trailhead (4000 Knights Trail Road, Nokomis), finishing touches are being completed, with the opening to the public anticipated in four to six weeks. A picnic table, benches and a kiosk have been added, and staff is developing a temporary trail map.
- Staff is working on a brochure about Sleeping Turtles Preserve North (3462 Border Road, Venice), where a 1-mile looped interpretative trial has been identified and trail signs are being designed; more benches will be added as well.