County Commissioners specify that the county administrator is to represent them in negotiations over acquisition of Orange Hammock Ranch

Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast continuing to try to broker a deal to preserve the 5,700-acre ‘pristine native landscape’ in South County

The Everett Dykes & Co. website offers this vista from Orange Hammock Ranch. Image from the website
The  Dykes Everett & Co. website offers this vista from Orange Hammock Ranch. Image from the website

With the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast having gained an extension on an option to purchase Orange Hammock Ranch in South County, the Sarasota County Commission has authorized County Administrator Tom Harmer to participate in negotiations to try to reach a deal.

The Foundation has volunteered to facilitate those discussions.

A June 17 email from Foundation President Christine Johnson to Harmer — which he forwarded to the commissioners — explained that the Foundation was requesting a representative from multiple public agencies “that can add value to this discussion, in addition to Sarasota County”: The City of North Port, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

She added that negotiations will focus on “Who will own and manage Orange Hammock Ranch and what uses will be permitted.”

Johnson told The Sarasota News Leader in a June 28 telephone interview that she still was awaiting word from two of the entities about who would represent them. She is hopeful, she added, that she can schedule the start of the negotiations before she goes on vacation on July 26.

During the commission’s June 21 regular meeting, Harmer reported that he and board Chair Al Maio had met with Johnson on June 16. In her follow-up email on June 17, Johnson wrote, “Time is of the essence as our option deadline expires October 2, 2016.”

The original deadline was June 4. The extension was granted about that time, Johnson told the News Leader.

The Orlando real estate firm of Dykes Everett & Co. has listed the property at $22,807,300. The firm’s website says the ranch “offers a pristine native landscape with excellent uplands pasture, beautiful vistas, oak hammocks and towering pines, and some of the finest quail, wild turkey, and deer hunting in the area.”

In the Foundation’s Spring 2016 newsletter, Johnson wrote, “For more than 20 years, conservationists have been trying to save Orange Hammock Ranch, the largest privately held and undeveloped piece of property in Sarasota County. We continue to work for its protection.”

On Jan. 26, the County Commission voted unanimously to endorse the Foundation’s efforts to acquire the ranch.

Christine Johnson. File photo
Christine Johnson. File photo

Referencing the June 17 email from Johnson, Harmer reported on June 21 that two appraisals of the ranch were submitted to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) — one from the Foundation and an updated one from the county. He subsequently spoke with a SWFWMD representative, he continued, who told him the values seemed appropriate for the 5,774-acre property on the north side of Interstate 75 in the city of North Port.

Harmer further pointed out that Johnson’s email had provided information about the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority’s interest in the acquisition. Her note said, “Peace Authority also commissioned a report on Orange Hammock Ranch that was presented to their board on June 1st. Their report frames the conservation discussion quite well, outlining succinctly but scientifically, the regional importance of Orange Hammock Ranch to our water supply and quality, flood protection, wildlife habitat connectivity, recreational opportunities and opportunities for hydrologic restoration. The Peace River Water Authority is NOT interested in building a reservoir on The Ranch. They are interested in utilizing The Ranch as a mitigation site for further water storage on their adjacent RV Griffin Reserve.”

Additionally, Johnson wrote in her email that the Foundation has continued to receive letters of support in favor of conserving the entire ranch. They have come from Manatee County, Charlotte County, DeSoto County and the Peace River Authority. “We anticipate a letter of support from Hardee County as well,” she noted.

Board response

An aerial map shows Orange Hammock Ranch outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An aerial map shows Orange Hammock Ranch outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Harmer formally asked for the board’s support so he or his designee could participate in the negotiations. He added that he would keep the commissioners apprised of the progress of the talks.

“I think the updates have to be frequent,” Maio replied. “They have to be on the agenda.” Maio pointed out that “absolutely no discussions” have taken place among the commissioners about the potential financial commitment from Sarasota County.

“I’m fine with Mr. Harmer doing [the negotiations on behalf of the county],” Commissioner Charles Hines said. However, he was concerned about the prospect of Harmer designating someone to act in his stead.

County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo
County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Referring to the list Johnson provided in her email, which Harmer had just read, Hines continued, “You just mentioned multiple governmental agencies involved in this, and some private groups … We just have to be careful who we potentially hand this [negotiating] off to … so that we don’t overthink this and blow this deal.”

Hines added, “We struggle sometimes, negotiating deals,” even if they involve just the county and one nonprofit organization. He told Harmer, “I trust your ability and your personal experience, [with your] having worked in the private sector, to cut through potential red tape that sometimes can frustrate a seller and cause him to walk away.”

Hines then asked that Harmer bring any issues to the commissioners that possibly could halt a deal, so they could try to prevent such an outcome.

“Understand,” Harmer replied.