County Commission declines to cap the amount staff may offer; the Southwest Florida Water Management District tentatively has proposed putting up $10 million as a partner in the process
Having talked of promises dating back almost 20 years, and those of more recent times, the Sarasota County commissioners this week unanimously directed staff to continue negotiations that they hope will lead to the purchase and preservation of Orange Hammock Ranch.
The motion — put forth by Commissioner Christine Robinson — did not include any funding figure, though staff was proposing $5 million, Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, pointed out during her Nov. 8 presentation.
“I did not put a cap on the amount of money purposely,” Robinson told her colleagues.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) has tentatively proposed spending $10 million as the other partner in the transaction.
The Dykes Everett & Co. firm in Orlando still had Orange Hammock Ranch listed for sale at $22,807,300 on its website on Nov. 8. A Sept. 6 memo to the County Commission said an appraisal undertaken for the county earlier this year by a state-certified appraiser put the property’s value at $20.2 million.
Several public speakers — including a former county commissioner, the county’s former director of environmental services and the retired director of New College’s Environmental Studies Program — urged the board to pursue the purchase.
Former Commissioner Jon Thaxton, speaking as a private individual, pointed out that the “highest and best use [of the property] is preservation and conservation. … The habitats rival that of Myakka River State Park.”
Moreover, Thaxton said, “it is a ‘keystone’ parcel,” meaning that if the county does succeed it acquiring it, the public ownership of the ranch will raise the values of the parcels around it.
Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which has facilitated the negotiations, also noted that the 5,744-acre ranch “contains the globally imperiled habitat called dry prairie,” as well as wetlands. The property’s habitats “are enormously important to the drinking water supply,” she added, and to the existence of a variety of animals and plants. The property “has been the priority for conservation in this region literally for decades,” Johnson told the board.
Robinson’s motion also made it clear that the County Commission remains committed to improving public access to its Walton Ranch and Deer Prairie Creek Preserve natural lands within close proximity to the city of North Port, as promised several years ago to the North Port City Commission.
At the behest of Chair Alan Maio, Robinson further included in her motion direction to staff that the acquisition of a private parcel adjacent to the 132-acre Old Miakka Preserve at the intersection of Fruitville Road and Verna Road be among the priorities.
Brown earlier had explained that the total amount in the county’s fund for the acquisition and improvements in its Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) is $12,163,516. The projects for Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and the Walton Ranch Preserve together have been estimated at $2.5 million.
The ESLPP accrues money as a result of a voter-approved, 0.25-mil ad valorem tax. The tax initially won citizen support in 1999; a November 2005 referendum extended the program through 2029.
Brown added that on Oct. 6, the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee [ESLOC] voted 6-2 to support the use of ESLPP funds to acquire the ranch, as long as the ESLOC retained the ability to undertake other acquisitions.
When Commissioner Charles Hines asked her how much money would be expected to come into the ESLPP fund during the 2018 fiscal year, she told him the projection is for approximately $2.5 million.
“This isn’t going to be done in a month,” Hines pointed out of the conclusion of negotiations regarding the purchase of the ranch. That means the county will have time to accumulate funds for other projects the board members had discussed, he added.
The County Commission has been accused of not valuing the environment, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo said prior to the vote. Yet, if one looks at the situation statewide, he continued, “Sarasota County has the largest percentage of locally preserved land, proportional to its geographic area. … This board and previous boards have an extraordinary commitment to the environment.”
Robinson’s motion also called for staff to develop a plan for the use, management and maintenance of public access to Orange Hammock Ranch and to draft an agreement to that effect for the board’s approval.
The value of the property
During her Nov. 8 presentation, Brown explained that the option the owners of Orange Hammock Ranch had given the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast expired on Oct. 4. Although the foundation requested a 90-day extension, she continued, the owners have not responded.
When she addressed the board during the Open to the Public segment of the morning board session, Johnson of the foundation told the commissioners that she and her staff have been working to identify funding for the purchase of the ranch “by the end of this calendar year.”
“Sarasota County could be 50-50 partners with SWFWMD,” she added, noting the approximately $13 million in the ESLPP fund.
Having spoken with county financial staff, Johnson continued, she had heard the estimate that another $3 million to $4 million could be expected to come into the ESLPP coffers over each of the next two years. Through the remaining 12 fiscal years of the program, she added, the County Commission could anticipate a total of about $100 million in “new money.”
The North Port history
After Brown concluded her presentation, Commissioner Robinson explained to her colleagues some background regarding the North Port City Commission and Sarasota County natural lands near its borders. During one recent period, she said, the North Port board members felt that the County Commission purposely was working to keep the city’s residents from having easy access to those lands. Finally, after the County Commission began putting more emphasis on the southern extension of The Legacy Trail, she continued, the city board members “began to trust that we were going to allow them access.”
Therefore, she continued, if the County Commission chose to forgo the planned improvements to Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and the Walton Ranch Preserve, “I believe that would probably set us back with the North Port City Commission …”
When Commissioner Hines pointed out that public access does exist to both those natural lands under county ownership, Robinson countered, “All access is not equal. … When you have to wade through knee-deep mud to launch a canoe, and you don’t have to do that in other places in the county, that sends a message to residents.”
Commissioner Carolyn Mason responded that she did not see why the County Commission could not proceed with the improvements to the two preserves at the same time it pursued negotiations to purchase Orange Hammock Ranch.
“I don’t think anyone here wants to do anything to hurt the City of North Port,” Chair Maio said. “But there’s no reason we can’t send a signal — this board — that Orange Hammock [is a high priority].” People have been telling county commissioners for 20, 30, 40 years, he added, “‘You must buy this one.’”
Vice Chair Caragiulo concurred that that the acquisition of the ranch did not need to be negotiated in concord with “a breach of an agreement with the City of North Port.”
“I think there’s money to do everything,” Maio told his colleagues, referring to the improvements to the two preserves and the potential $460,000 acquisition of the property next to Old Miakka Preserve.
Furthermore, Maio said, “This commissioner doesn’t want us to say [the offer for Orange Hammock Ranch is] capped at $5 million …”
More details about the ranch
As part of her presentation, Brown also noted that Orange Hammock Ranch first was identified in 1998 for inclusion in the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program’s Eastern Ranchlands Protection program as a priority site.
The property has been used for agricultural and recreational hunting, she said, but no development exists on it. Public access to it is available through the adjacent, 6,000-acre RV Griffin Reserve, which is owned by SWFWMD.
Approximately 60% to 75% of Orange Hammock Ranch is wetlands, Brown added. It serves as habitat for a variety of wildlife, including bobcats, whitetail deer, reptiles and numerous bird species.
During the public comments period earlier in the meeting, Bob Clark — representing the Venice Area Audubon Society and Florida Audubon — told the board that the ranch, as part of the Myakka River watershed, has been identified as one of the state’s Important Bird Areas, which are designated both on state and national levels.