Effort requested by Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast as it works to purchase the property; North Port Chamber to explore changing its stance on the acquisition proposal
The Sarasota County Commission agreed by consensus this week to a request from the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to update the county’s 2010 appraisal of the 5,774-acre Orange Hammock Ranch property near the City of North Port.
Last month, the board sent a letter of support to the Foundation regarding its efforts to acquire the land, which is listed at $22,807,300 by the Orlando real estate firm of Dykes Everett & Co.
In a Feb. 8 letter to County Administrator Tom Harmer, Christine Johnson, president of the Foundation, expressed her thanks for the board’s position. She added, “As we proceed to put together this complicated project, the essential next step is to determine the appraised fair market value [of the ranch].” Johnson noted, “Two appraisals are required for most public funding programs,” and, she pointed out, that Orange Hammock Ranch is on the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Project list.
Harmer told the board during its Feb. 9 regular meeting that he had not yet determined how much the updated appraisal would cost. He added that the Foundation itself is undertaking the other appraisal.
“That’s fine,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said of the request. However, she continued with a chuckle, it seemed clear to her that the process ultimately would lead to another request from the Foundation: that the County Commission approve funding to help the nonprofit organization acquire the property.
Johnson told The Sarasota News Leader on Feb. 1 that the Foundation would be looking to a wide variety of sources — including private ones — “to cobble together all the different sources of money” to make the purchase possible.
Robinson said on Feb. 9 that if the Foundation does choose to ask the board for financial support, “that needs to be a formalized item on our agenda.”
Some North Port residents remain opposed to seeing all of the ranch set aside for conservation purposes, Robinson pointed out; therefore, the commission needs to give them an opportunity to make their voices heard if the Foundation does seek county assistance related to the acquisition.
Moreover, the item should be scheduled for a South County meeting, she added, so North Port residents would not have to travel to Sarasota to make their cases.
“Please make Ms. Johnson aware [of that],” Robinson told Harmer, so Johnson would have plenty of notice about the board’s expectations.
During the commission’s Jan. 26 meeting, Debi Osborne, director of land protection for the Foundation, called Orange Hammock Ranch “a rare and special property.” Johnson noted that it is “the ideal site for land conservation” because of its location adjacent to the RV Griffin Preserve and the Longino Preserve.
Nonetheless, in December 2014, the North Port Area Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the County Commission, asking it to oppose a Foundation request for support at that time in its efforts to have the ranch placed among properties on the Florida Forever list. Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States, its website says.
In an email accompanying the letter, Chamber Executive Director William Gunnin wrote, “The Chamber is open to the idea of designating a certain portion of the property for conservation and another portion for commercial/residential development.”
In a Feb. 10 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Gunnin said, “We really haven’t deviated from our stance.”
Nonetheless, he continued, he planned to bring the matter back before the Chamber’s Government Relations Committee, which will hold its next meeting on Feb. 25. He added that he hoped to invite to that session a guest with expertise on the ranch, so the committee members could discuss all the facets of the Foundation’s latest plans.
That committee made the original decision to oppose conservation of the entire parcel, Gunnin noted, so it is appropriate for the group to take the lead on the issue once again.