County board has been working with Southwest Florida Water Management District to conserve the entire 5,744 acres if the county and the district can purchase the land
The vice mayor of North Port caught Sarasota County commissioners off-guard during a joint meeting on June 6 when she announced that she was conflicted about the plan to conserve the entire 5,744 acres of Orange Hammock Ranch.
Since January 2016, the County Commission has been working on a plan to ensure the property can remain undeveloped. However, Vanessa Carusone, who was re-elected to the North Port Commission in November 2016, told the county board members and her colleagues, “As someone who is very intimately familiar with the property,” she believes parts of it do not need protection.
Carusone added, “The thought of losing all that commercial base and that taxable value really concerns me.”
“That was the last thing that I expected to hear today,” County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo responded.
“Our board really has looked to the City of North Port to be at the head of this [process] because … it’s your space,” he said. The North Port commissioners “really have to figure out what you would like us to do. … An awful lot of folks want the whole property preserved.”
Later, Caragiulo noted his “initial shock” at Carusone’s comments.
North Port Mayor Linda Yates and her colleagues indicated they would schedule a discussion — possibly a special meeting — to determine with certainty what direction to provide the County Commission. However, the ensuing discussion that afternoon indicated that a majority of the North Port board members still favor conserving the entire segment of the ranch that is on the market.
As Yates pointed out, the owner at this point does not want to split the ranch into parcels for sale.
An update on the continuing effort to purchase the property was on the agenda for the session in North Port. Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department informed the boards that negotiations among the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Sarasota County and Dykes Everett & Co. in Orlando — the firm representing the owners — have resulted in a March 20 offer of $18 million from SWFWMD on behalf of it and the county. On April 3, Dykes Everett responded with a counter offer of $22 million in cash, with a closing date of Sept. 30.
Under its governing policy, she explained, SWFWMD can pay up to 90% of the appraised value of a parcel, Brown pointed out, so the district has up to $9 million to commit to Orange Hammock Ranch.
The county and SWFWMD have ordered updated appraisals, Brown said. After they receive the material and have reviewed it, they “will continue to seek opportunities and [pursue] negotiations to preserve this property.”
Orange Hammock Ranch is northeast of Interstate 75 and about 3 miles east of North Toledo Blade Boulevard in North Port, Brown noted. It also is north of the Snover Canal, which feeds into North Port’s water treatment plant, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out.
In January 2016, the County Commission voted to send a letter of support to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast regarding an initiative the Foundation had begun to secure funding for the purchase of the property. Included in the agenda packet for the June 6 joint session of the boards, the letter says, “Protecting Orange Hammock Ranch has been a focus of conservation for almost twenty years. In 1988, the property was one of Sarasota County’s original Protection Priority Sites because of its high ecological value. The [county’s] Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Oversight Committee (ESLOC) approved the acquisition of the property on October 7, 2010.”
On Nov. 8, 2016, the County Commission directed County Administrator Tom Harmer to continue — on its behalf — the negotiations, the Conservation Foundation had begun, with the hope Orange Hammock Ranch could be bought. The motion made by then-Commissioner Christine Robinson did not include any funding figure. At that time, Brown told the board SWFWMD tentatively was proposing to spend $10 million.
On its website in November 2016, Dykes Everett had the ranch listed for sale at $22,807,300. An appraisal undertaken for the county in 2016 put the property’s value at $20.2 million.
A fact sheet the Conservation Foundation prepared for the County Commission in 2016 listed multiple reasons for conserving the entire 5,744 acres. Among them are to protect the City of North Port’s drinking water, to reduce flooding risk by keeping water on the ranch and to provide for public recreation and ecotourism.
Signs of potential change
On Dec. 9, 2014, several representatives of the City of North Port appeared before the County Commission to ask the board to refrain from supporting the efforts of the Conservation Foundation to pursue conservation of the all the Orange Hammock Ranch parcels. They cited their view that part of the property could host commercial development.
However, on Jan. 18, 2016, Brown of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department emailed the County Commission to let it know that the City of North Port’s subsequent research into land use designations of the property had led the North Port Commission to agree that conservation of the entire ranch “will provide the greatest value and benefit, regionally and beyond, both economically and environmentally.”
Yet, during the June 6 joint meeting, Peter Bartolotta, co-founder of the North Port Economic Development Corp. and a past president of that organization, brought up the idea of conserving only part of Orange Hammock Ranch. About 2,000 of the 5,744 acres, he said, “is drop-dead gorgeous.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he asked, if negotiations with the owners could result in 500 of the acres being set aside for commercial use for the City of North Port. “I would challenge the commissions today to come up with a solution … to pursue that additional tax base,” Bartolotta added.
Murmurs arose among the North Port board members before Carusone finally said, “I’m trying to behave. … I just have mixed feelings on Orange Hammock.” She agreed with Bartolotta’s remark, she continued, about setting aside part of the property for development.
Noting that the RV Griffin Reserve in DeSoto County is adjacent to Orange Hammock Ranch, Carusone said she thought that “lower-scale commercial development” would be appropriate on part of the ranch. She cited tiny homes, rental cabins, kayak rental businesses and a natural garden as among the potential uses. However, she added, she opposes “commercial business of a large scale and high volume.”
“I thought that we were all on the same page,” Caragiulo told her. “If that is no longer the case, then you need to let us know pretty quickly.” He is “completely in support” of preserving the entire ranch, he said. “But I’m not going to get into a debate with your city and your constituents.”
Mayor Yates reminded everyone that the owner is not willing to separate the ranch into parcels. “It’s all or nothing.”
“That’s my understanding,” County Commissioner Maio replied.
“There’s been a change, obviously, with the [North Port] Commission,” Yates continued, referring to the 2016 election, during which Carusone, Christopher B. Hanks and Debbie McDowell were elected to the board. Additionally, this spring, Jill Luke won the District 4 seat.
Then Yates proposed her board schedule a discussion on an upcoming agenda about how to proceed on Orange Hammock Ranch.
When McDowell asked Caragiulo about the County Commission’s constraints regarding the negotiations, he told her, “My constraint is the initial shock.”
“I’m kind of shocked myself,” McDowell replied.
“This is something that we painstakingly took through a process,” Maio pointed out. “I’m in a little bit of the same mode as Commissioner Caragiulo about being surprised.”
The ranch acreage, Maio added, “is the big wide piece that goes from the Myakka River to the Peace River.”
“I think there’s positive opportunity as far as the passive recreational opportunities that do exist, which maybe is not commercial,” Yates said. However, she added, she felt it would take much to persuade her to change her mind about conserving the entire property.
“Hopefully, you guys can let us know what you want to do,” Caragiulo said.
“I think that I’m just going to let this lay until we have, as a commission, a discussion,” Carusone replied. “It is necessary for a very clear vote on this.”
Prior to his 2016 election to his board, County Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out, he served for several years on the SWFWMD board. Therefore, he said, he was well acquainted with the initiative to purchase Orange Hammock Ranch. “It is necessary for a very clear vote on this [by the North Port board],” he concurred with Carusone.
Then Luke indicated that she was of a like mind with Yates in a desire for conservation of the whole ranch.
Yates pointed out that a majority of the board members “are 100% for conservation.” Nonetheless, she agreed with Carusone about scheduling a new discussion on the topic.