Community residents working with Conservation Foundation of Gulf Coast to purchase and preserve 23-acre parcel near Celery Fields

Nonprofit needs $650,000 by June 30

An aerial map shows the location of Graceland Ranch, outlined in red, just west of Tatum Ridge Elementary School. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

As debate continues at the Sarasota County Commission dais about the future of county property adjacent to the Celery Fields, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast is at work on an initiative to create a Rural Heritage Conservation Area in the same vicinity.

A big key to the nonprofit’s plan is the proposed acquisition of a 23.4-acre parcel located off Palmer Boulevard, east of the Celery Fields.

In a June 12 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, explained that it had only been a week since the nonprofit had launched its campaign to raise a total of $2,550,000 to buy the privately owned property known as Graceland Ranch.

Residents of the community approached the Foundation, she said, asking, “‘Is there anything you can do?’” They had learned that developers were interested in the Graceland site, Johnson continued, and they wanted to see it remain in a natural state, in keeping with the Celery Fields.

“Graceland is the linchpin to establish a 140-acre wildlife conservation park within a 1,300 acre rural heritage area,” the Foundation says on its website. The property “already is contributing to our community’s quality of life. Graceland provides habitat for wildlife in forested wetlands as well asrecreational opportunities like therapeutic horseback riding and outdoor activities for our youth. This rural heritage area serves as an attractor for visitors and as an amenity for those who live, work and play in Sarasota and Manatee Counties.”

This graphic shows the Rural Heritage Conservation Area the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast envisions with the Graceland Ranch property, Big Cat Habitat, the Celery Fields and the county’s ‘Quads’. Image courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

The Facebook page for Graceland Ranch notes that the property is located at 7360 Rim Road in Sarasota, just west of Tatum Ridge Elementary School.

Johnson told the News Leader that the Foundation began negotiating with the owner of Graceland Ranch about two months ago. Information the Foundation had received, she said, indicated that two different developers were interested in the land, “nibbling around the edges.” One of those, she continued, seemed pretty serious about constructing approximately 40 homes on the site, even though the land is not zoned for such development.

(The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office says the land is zoned Open Use Rural (OUR). The county’s zoning regulations explain, “The OUR District is intended to retain the open character of the land. This district is further intended for agricultural purposes and uses, and to preserve lands with agricultural development potential. Agriculturally-oriented residential development is encouraged, and all commercial and industrial development is prohibited. … Permitted uses are limited to conservation, agriculture, very low density residential development, recreation, and with certain limitations, other uses that are not contrary to the open character of the district.”)

The owners of Graceland Ranch chose to accept the Conservation Foundation’s offer of an option to purchase the site, Johnson said. Still, she stressed, “It’s really going to be a matter of whether the community wants to save this piece of property.”

The Foundation website makes it clear that the nonprofit needs $650,000 in donations by June 30, with another $650,000 due by Sept. 30 “in order to meet our contract deposits, demonstrate community support, and keep this opportunity, this one-time chance, alive.”

Any person interested in helping with the acquisition can click on a button on the Conservation Foundation website and go directly to a webpage offering a series of steps for making a contribution.

This is part of the webpage that allows an person to make a contribution to the Graceland Ranch acquisition fund. mage courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

Gifts are tax-deductible, the webpage points out.

‘We save the land’ 

During the June 10 meeting of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), Debi Osborne, director of land protection for the Conservation Foundation, sought support for the Graceland initiative.

“We save land,” she told the audience members. “We save it forever.”

In the case of Graceland Ranch, she continued, Foundation staff members are working “with willing sellers who are interested in conserving their land …”

If the Foundation is successful in acquiring the property, Osborne continued, “That would then hold the line for the type of more high-density development that’s south of Palmer [Boulevard].”

“We see this as a community effort,” she added.

Sarasota Audubon leaders also are encouraging the public to help save Graceland Ranch from development.

Christine Johnson. mage courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

An email blast they sent out on June 7 said, “To all Audubon members and those who cherish retaining as much of our environmental lands as we can, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast is taking the lead in protecting the lands east of the Celery Fields. This foresighted move is in addition to the conservation efforts by Sarasota Audubon, Fresh Start and all residents around the Celery Fields with regard to the [Quads] … If successful, imagine the scope of the protected lands around the Celery Fields! This would ensure a safe environment for the 246 species of birds, as well as all other forms of wildlife in the area. It’s a must for us all to help right now.”

The email encouraged people to donate to the Foundation.

The Fresh Start group mentioned in the Sarasota Audubon email is the same organization that worked with county staff last year — with the support of the County Commission — to propose potential passive uses of the county’s four Quads parcels next to the Celery Fields. Comprising representatives of 50 homeowner associations in the area around the Celery Fields, the Fresh Start Initiative sought to convince the commissioners to focus on long-range planning for the Quads that would be compatible with the Celery Fields, which has become an internationally known bird-watching destination.

Early this year, the County Commission authorized staff to conduct community outreach for a potential amendment to the Critical Area Plan approved years ago for the eastern part of the county that encompasses the Fruitville Initiative. The board members agreed that the Quads could be considered for inclusion in that CAP, for more comprehensive planning purposes.

Nonetheless, on June 4, commission Chair Charles Hines brought up the prospect of the board’s selling the Southwest Quad to any developer who would be willing to create an affordable housing project on the site.

A Fresh Start blog this week noted both the Conservation Foundation efforts and the County Commission discussion last week. The Foundation’s plans, the blog pointed out, would ensure that Graceland Ranch “would receive a conservation easement barring development in perpetuity. The land could be dedicated to equestrian uses benefiting the public: riding, hippotherapy, school visits, education, and more, says [Foundation President] Johnson, who noted that several schools are nearby,” including not only Tatum Ridge, but also Fruitville Elementary, McIntosh Middle and the Farm School.

The blog added, “The Foundation is advocating uses in keeping with the trends and surrounding human communities, integrating a long-range vision of a lasting rural heritage and wildlife conservation for future generations.”

This is a portion of Graceland Ranch. Image from Google Maps

Conversely, the blog says, “[W]hile affordable housing is indeed a goal … Mr. Hines is promoting a quick fix to motivate the private construction of less costly housing, apparently without regard to how such an initiative would impact a host of significant social, environmental, economic and infrastructural concerns in a complex, radically changing area.”

Fresh Start also is encouraging people to contribute to the acquisition of Graceland Ranch.