Florida Cabinet approves use of $19.5 million of Florida Forever money to protect all of Orange Hammock Ranch from development

Conservation Foundation of Gulf Coast has until June 1 to raise $1.5 million it has pledged for the purchase

This vista is on the Orange Hammock Ranch property. Image courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio broke the news to his colleagues as his board was wrapping up its Feb. 4 agenda: The Florida Cabinet had approved spending $19.5 million in Florida Forever funds to buy the 5,777-acre Orange Hammock Ranch near North Port.

“This is an absolute stunning thing,” he said. “It is a huge swath of land … a continuous swath of land from the Myakka River to the Peace River. It is something that has long been needed.”

Maio indicated that behind-the-scenes efforts had resulted in getting the issue before the Cabinet, which comprises Florida’s attorney general, the state’s chief financial officer and the commissioner of agriculture.

For years, the county commissioners have talked of their desire to see Orange Hammock Ranch protected from development.

The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, took the lead at one point in negotiations with the Orlando real estate firm of Dykes Everett & Co., which had listed the property at $22,807,300 in 2016. That firm is located in Orlando.

Reached by phone after the Feb. 4 County Commission meeting ended, Suzanne Gregory, programs and marketing director for the Foundation, told The Sarasota News Leader about the staff’s excitement. However, she quickly pointed out, “Now we have to raise $1.5 million by June 1.”

Still, Gregory added, “We’re ecstatic.”

After receiving the news, the Foundation issued a press release saying it was launching a campaign to raise the $1.5 million “to permanently protect the 5,777-acre Orange Hammock Ranch.”

A graphic shows Orange Hammock Ranch next to the RV Griffin Reserve, along with Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority infrastructure sites on the Griffin Reserve. Image from the Peace River Authority

The Cabinet’s vote, the release explained, was contingent upon the Foundation’s contributing the remainder of the purchase price money for the initiative.

“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.”

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.

Christine Johnson. mage courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

“We are grateful for the many people and organizations that elevated this project, keeping it in the spotlight,” Christine Johnson, president of the Foundation, said of Orange Hammock in the release. “We are so close to making this extraordinary conservation project a success, and we now ask the community to help put it over the goal line.”

Johnson added in the release, “I am proud of our board and staff’s tenacity for this project, which has the trifecta of benefits — drinking water, rare habitat, and unique public access.”

A press release from the Florida Governor’s Office quoted Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP): “As a major link to conservation efforts, Florida’s land is of the utmost importance to our environmental initiatives.” Referencing the Orange Hammock deal and related proposals the Cabinet approved on Feb. 4, Valenstein added, “By continuing to invest in these projects, we are prioritizing Florida’s future as our population continues to rapidly grow. I thank Governor [Ron] DeSantis and the Cabinet for consistently supporting our efforts to preserve biologically diverse ecosystems and keeping both eyes on the environmental future of our state.”

Orange Hammock Ranch is located on the north side of Interstate 75 within the city of North Port, the Foundation release explained. The ranch connects RV Griffin Preserve with the Longino Preserve through about 6 miles of shared boundaries, the Foundation release continued. 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.”

Moreover, the release pointed out, “The property is also nearly pristine, with natural areas in better condition than many public lands. Over 200 wetlands are intermixed with pine flatwood, globally-imperiled dry prairie and other native habitat. Given this location and exceptional natural condition, the conservation of Orange Hammock Ranch will have sweeping benefits for regional connectivity, water quality, public recreation, and wildlife habitat.”

The release further noted, “This vast land is home to quail, indigo snake and the Florida black bear. The iconic Florida panther has also been spotted on this expansive land.”

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.”

In 2006, the City of North Port annexed the property — then called the McCall Ranch — for a proposed 13,000-home development called Isles of Athena, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported in February 2014. That project also was to include 4.2 million square feet of retail and office space, the newspaper added. However, that “development never materialized,” the Herald-Tribune said. A company called South Florida Sod ended up repossessing the property before it went into bankruptcy, the newspaper noted.

Looking to the past and to the future

A graphic shows the location of Orange Hammock Ranch near the city of North Port. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The backup agenda material for the Feb. 4 Cabinet meeting reported that 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.”

Separate appraisals in August 2019 — by two different firms — valued the property at $21,375,000 and $20,800,000; the higher figure was approved for the Cabinet, according to the agenda material.

In March 2017, the county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) offered a total of $18 million to Dykes Everett — $9 million from each — but the firm countered with an offer of $22 million in cash.

During a joint meeting of the County and North Port City commissions in June 2017, Peter Bartolotta, co-founder of the North Port Economic Development Corp., brought up the idea of conserving only part of the ranch. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” he asked, if 500 acres ultimately could be set aside for commercial use for the city?

Later during that meeting, then-Vice Mayor Vanessa Carusone expressed conflicted feelings over conserving the entire 5,777 acres. “The thought of losing all that commercial base and that taxable value really concerns me,” she said.

“That was the last thing that I expected to hear today,” then-County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo responded.

This October 2017 graphic shows the site of Orange Hammock Ranch relative to the larger area around it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the Feb. 4 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Maio noted that the state decision would free up the $9 million the board had set aside for the effort to try to acquire the ranch. “So now other things that need to be purchased can be.”

The funds came from revenue raised by the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP). In March 1999, county voters approved the establishment of the ESLPP to protect native habitats. They agreed to an annual assessment of 0.25 mills on their property tax bills to raise funds through 2019. During a second referendum — in November 2005 — voters extended the program through 2029 and expanded it to include efforts to purchase neighborhood parkland.