Environmental analysis indicates preferred route for Legacy Trail connector to North Port would parallel I-75 and then run perpendicular to interstate before reaching West Price Boulevard

Sarasota County staff also working on potential connector to Warm Mineral Springs

A graphic shows existing and potential new connectors from The Legacy Trail to North Port. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A firm working with consulting company Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota has identified a route that follows Interstate 75 and then makes a perpendicular turn through Schewe Ranch as the best connector of The Legacy Trail to the city of North Port.

That determination was made on the basis of 14 different categories VHB reviewed in terms of the general impact the connector would have on the surrounding area, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), told the Sarasota County Commission and the North Port Commission during the boards’ joint meeting on Oct. 2 in Venice.

Kimley-Horn has been working as a county consultant on the project, she pointed out.

Among the factors VHB analyzed, she noted, were wetlands, wildlife habitat, wildlife species and the flow of stormwater through the area.

Identified on maps as “the red route,” it would connect to North Port at West Price Boulevard, Rissler pointed out. It would start at the terminus of Forbes Road, she said.

That “is the preferred route for a Legacy Trail-like paved experience,” Rissler told the commissioners.

A still from a Sarasota County video shows bicyclists on The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At the outset of her presentation, Rissler reminded the commissioners that more than 70% of voters approved a referendum on the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election Ballot that gave the County Commission the ability to borrow $65 million for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota. The County Commission also planned to use part of the proceeds from bond sales to cover the expense of a connector to North Port, as County Commissioner Alan Maio emphasized on Oct. 2.

Construction of the new surface sections of The Legacy Trail should begin in 2020, Rissler noted, with completion of that work by the end of 2022.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will construct the overpasses needed at Clark and Bee Ridge roads in Sarasota, she added.

In June, Rissler said, the county completed the acquisition of the Seminole Gulf Railway rail corridor for the North Extension.

Analyzing the options

Delving into more details about the research on the potential North Port connectors, Rissler said that the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) — which owns Schewe Ranch — approves of the red route, which would run along the eastern perimeter of the ranch. Moreover, North Port leaders agree on that route, she said.

A graphic shows close-ups of the yellow and red routes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The second of two potential connectors Kimley-Horn’s consultant, VHB, analyzed, Rissler noted, is called the “yellow route.” It is an existing trail that runs from a firebreak line through Deer Prairie Creek Preserve. The yellow route “will remain a natural surface trail,” she pointed out, connecting to the southern entrance into Deer Prairie Creek Preserve.

The third “white route” runs along Florida Power & Light Co.’s South Powerline Trail through the Carlton Reserve and the Big Slough Preserve to the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. “It’s available today, and it’s used by many [bicyclists] all the time,” Rissler pointed out.

The white route connects to The Legacy Trail via bike lanes, sidewalks and a section of the multi-use trail along the Edmondson Road in North Port, she said.

Moreover, Rissler continued, staff has been looking into a potential connector to Warm Mineral Springs from the red route.

The design for the red route is expected to be completed in April 2020, she noted. “We do not anticipate having cost estimates until November,” she added, when the design plans reach the 30% mark.

After Rissler’s presentation, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked whether any of the routes “involve buying more right of way?”

These are milestones in the process to complete the improvements to The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The yellow and red routes are owned by Sarasota County or SWFWMD, Rissler replied. “There would need to be an agreement with SWFWMD,” Rissler added, if staff remains focused on the red route. However, she said, no additional right of way would be necessary.

Staff already is working on that recreational easement with SWFWMD, she told the boards.

Nonetheless, Rissler continued, “There is a lot at the end of West Price Boulevard that SWFWMD owns” that the county might need to purchase.

“So it’s negligible,” Detert pointed out, referring to any extra property expense.

“Correct,” Rissler said.

“I’m in total agreement with the [red] route and the analysis [undertaken by VHB],” North Port Commissioner Jill Luke said. “It was quite obvious,” she added, that it would be more like the rest of The Legacy Trail.

Then Luke pointed out that perhaps five pieces of property near Warm Mineral Springs would have to be purchased if the new connector were to run to the Springs complex.

“That is not something that we have dug into at this point from a staff level,” Rissler replied.

Both Luke and North Port Commissioner Debbie McDowell talked of having toured the potential connectors with County Commissioners Charles Hines and Christian Ziegler, respectively.

“I have to tell you that that red route is absolutely beautiful,” McDowell told Rissler. “So thank you.”

Ziegler then noted that he had observed a number of homes that appeared to be close to the red route, opening up the prospect of families using the new connector.

“There’s a major canal between the homes and the Schewe Ranch,” Rissler responded. “We’ve talked about a bridge at West Price [Boulevard]” to connect that neighborhood to the red route, she added.

Ziegler pointed to that potential as “a big asset,” in terms of enabling improved family access to The Legacy Trail.

“Some of these other routes — you’re going into the middle of the woods,” he added.

An aerial map shows Warm Mineral Springs and the southern entrance to Deer Prairie Creek Preserve. Image from Google Maps

Hines talked of his excitement about the potential connection to Warm Mineral Springs. “I’m so happy that things are moving forward.”

If that extra part of the route can be completed, he pointed out, people would be able to ride The Legacy Trail to Warm Mineral Springs “to go to lunch or dinner,” and North Port residents could park their cars at the facilities and then take the Trail to downtown Sarasota and back.

When he estimated the round trip between Warm Mineral Springs and Payne Park could be as much as 50 miles, Rissler responded that it would be about 40.

“Just absolutely amazing,” Hines added.