June 1 deadline looms
In early February, environmental advocates — especially those in Southwest Florida — could have been described as practically giddy. They were celebrating the Florida Cabinet’s decision to allocate $19.5 million in Florida Forever funds to the purchase of the 5,777-acre Orange Hammock Ranch near North Port.
The caveat with that state vote, however, was that the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast would need to raise $1.5 million by June 1 to make the transaction feasible.
The effort to secure that money has reached what might be called “crunch time,” The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
After receiving word on Feb. 4 about the Cabinet’s decision, Foundation staff members issued a press release, saying they were launching a fundraising campaign “to permanently protect” Orange Hammock.
“Conserving Orange Hammock Ranch has been a major priority for Conservation Foundation for more than 10 years,” the release continued. “The Foundation was successful in getting this property added to the Florida Forever list in 2013, and has worked to build public and political support since then.”
Among those who were committed to the effort were the Sarasota County commissioners, who had pledged $9 million from the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) to help with the purchase of the ranch.
As of May 18, the Conservation Foundation — which is based in Osprey — had raised more than $900,000, Suzanne Gregory, director of programs and marketing for the nonprofit, told the News Leader. That left two weeks to obtain the rest of the money.
Gregory also confirmed for the News Leader that a $300,000 match has been offered as part of the final push. Thus, Foundation staff is hard at work trying to raise the $300,000 to unlock that match, she wrote in a May 18 email.
“The more we get the word out, the more people choose to donate,” she added.
“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something really big for our region,” she emphasized.
A Foundation webpage dedicated to the fundraising effort explains that Orange Hammock is a “breathtaking slice of old Florida [that] holds the trifecta of land conservation benefits — protecting drinking water, preserving wildlife habitat, and providing exceptional public access.”
The Foundation was the entity that was successful in getting the property added to the Florida Forever list in 2013.
The Florida Forever program, which was established in July 2001, is the state’s “premier conservation and recreation lands acquisition program, a blueprint for conserving natural resources and renewing Florida’s commitment to conserve the state’s natural and cultural heritage,” the Florida Department of Environmental Protection explains on its website.
For a number of years, the Conservation Foundation spearheaded the initiative to purchase Orange Hammock. Later, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) took over the leadership role. The latter, like the County Commission, had pledged $9 million.
Between the county and SWFWMD, a total of $18 million was offered to the Orlando real estate firm marketing the property — Dykes Everett & Co. The Orange Hammock listing in 2016 said the owners wanted $22,807,300.
Recently, Commissioner Alan Maio — who has been a champion of the efforts to make Orange Hammock public land — talked of how the Florida Cabinet decision freed up the $9 million from the county’s ESLPP for other acquisitions.
Orange Hammock Ranch is located on the north side of Interstate 75 within the city of North Port. The ranch connects RV Griffin Preserve with the Longino Preserve through about 6 miles of shared boundaries, the Foundation has pointed out. It “increases the 120,000-acre buffer surrounding the Myakka River and strengthens the connection between the Myakka and Peace Rivers. Immense volumes of rainfall collect on the property and feed the Snover Waterway and RV Griffin reservoirs, both of which are critical sources of North Port’s clean drinking water,” a Foundation news release has explained.
The backup agenda material for the Feb. 4 Florida Cabinet meeting reported that, if the acquisition of the property is finalized, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) would be designated to oversee Orange Hammock Ranch as a wildlife management area. The document added that the primary goals of that management would be “(1) conserve and protect significant habitat for native species, including those that are threatened and endangered; (2) conserve, manage, or restore important ecosystems; (3) enhance or protect significant surface water, timber, fish, and wildlife resources; and (4) provide areas for natural resource-based recreation, while protecting the natural and historical resources located on the area.”