Former County Commissioner Hines updates Sarasota City Commission on plans for filling in gaps of state-recognized Gulf Coast Trail

County Commission discusses Legacy Trail connections to Lakewood Ranch and gets update on North Port route

This is a close-up of Sarasota County, along with areas to the north and south, in the Gulf Coast Trail map. Image from the Trust for Public Land.

As work continues on Sarasota County’s Legacy Trail route from Venice to North Port, long-range connectivity possibilities have been put in the spotlight during two recent local government discussions.

On May 16, former County Commissioner Charles Hines, who has been named program director for the state-recognized Gulf Coast Trail, addressed the Sarasota City Commission on Monday about extensions of The Legacy Trail through Newtown and the Bobby Jones Golf Club property — and, ultimately, north to Manatee County and as far south as Collier County.

Showing the board members a map, he explained that the Gulf Coast Trail is a bicycling/pedestrian route that extends from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, through Manatee and Sarasota counties, down to Naples. That is a distance of about 330 miles. However, Hines pointed out, “There’s a lot of gaps in it.”

The Gulf Coast Trail is a focus of the Trust for Public Land, which, Hines noted, “was the integral partner for Sarasota County” in planning for the extension of The Legacy Trail from Venice to downtown Sarasota.

The Trust was the entity that negotiated with the owner of the railroad corridor to secure the property for Sarasota County, Hines added. It also assisted county leaders with preparation for the November 2018 General Election referendum, during which over 70% of voters approved of the county’s issuing $65 million in bonds to pay for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, as well as the North Port Connector.

Representatives of the Trust, he continued, “gave [the County Commission] the courage and the wherewithal to do this incredible project.”

Referencing the map again, he noted opportunities for the city to become “probably one of the key Trail cities, if not in the state of Florida, in the country.”

This is the entire Gulf Coast Trail map. Image from the Trust for Public Land

The Trail could be used to link The Bay Park on the city’s 53 waterfront acres, the new proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC), and the planned public park portion of the Bobby Jones Golf Club property, as well as the new indoor sports complex the County Commission has endorsed for Nathan Benderson Park near University Parkway, Hines said. (On May 10, the County Commission voted unanimously to dedicate $20 million in Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax,” revenue — to the construction of the sports complex.)

Other city amenities that can be connected through pedestrian/biking trails are the Newtown History Museum and Selby Gardens, Hines added.

Moreover, he pointed out, all of the colleges located in the area could be connected to downtown Sarasota via the Trail.

“It’s important to have courage, to have vision and then have partners to help you create these types of things,” Hines continued.

In terms of the Newtown connection: Hines explained that representatives of the Trust for Public Land are “working closely with [city] staff” on the potential acquisition of more railroad corridor for that part of the Gulf Coast Trail. If that does not prove feasible, he said, then city staff is considering a “Complete Street” option, which would entail wider sidewalks and bike lanes.

He told the city commissioners that the Newtown Trail was especially important to him in the context of The Bay Park’s development. Hines added, “I always felt there were some promises made” to ensure that Newtown residents would be able to walk or bike to The Bay Park. “This trail will create that connectivity,” Hines said, noting that it also will facilitate economic redevelopment, which is a benefit of such routes for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Former County Commissioner Charles Hines addresses the Sarasota city commissioners on May 16. News Leader image

On its website, the Trust for Public Land says of the Gulf Coast Trail, “Outdoor tourism is essential to Florida’s economy, and this trail will offer miles of fun for visitors. We know epic trails like this one are also powerful drivers of economic growth and treasured spaces for neighbors seeking nature, exercise and alternative transport close-to-home.”

Then Hines pointed out that the staff of the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) already is working on a realignment study for Fruitville Road. However, he emphasized, “You’re not going to get a 12-foot-wide trail down Fruitville Road.” Yet, 12 feet, he said, is the width needed for a route to be considered part of the Gulf Coast Trail.

The best option, he continued, is a trail through Bobby Jones Golf Club that eventually would allow for a connection to Benderson Park, which he called “the perfect trailhead.”

Hines urged the city commissioners to ensure that the trail through Bobby Jones will be 12 feet wide and consisting of concrete or asphalt, so it can be incorporated into the Gulf Coast Trail. “Don’t miss this opportunity.”

Further, he pointed out, the staff of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is working on a flyover of Interstate 75 in the vicinity of Benderson Park, which would connect Lakewood Ranch to county and city trails.

If the trails can be put in place, Hines said, “Everyone’s going to want to come to your city and take advantage of all the great amenities that you have.”

The Legacy Trail and the Gulf Coast Trail are the links that will make that happen, he added.

The county’s community foundations all are supportive of the prospect, Hines noted. Additionally, the “thousands of members” of the nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail want to see those connections in place, so they have been providing support for new projects.

He then reiterated his earlier point that the Trust for Public Land “is here to help, too.”

Finally, Hines again emphasized, “Find that courage.”

Connecting to Benderson Park and Lakewood Ranch

On May 10, during the County Commission discussion about the Benderson Park indoor sports complex, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), talked about linking The Legacy Trail to Benderson Park and Lakewood Ranch.

“We have worked very closely with the [Nathan Benderson Park] Conservancy, as well as the Friends of the Legacy Trail on how do we make that connection” to other areas of Sarasota County and Manatee County.

(The Conservancy is the successor to the nonprofit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA); it manages Benderson Park, including events that take place at the county facility.)

This February map shows the full North Extension of The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The connection county staff does control, Rissler continued, is the one where the North Extension of The Legacy Trail crosses Beneva Road. Bicyclists could continue on the bike lane, while pedestrians could use the sidewalk, to cross Fruitville Road, she continued.

After they are north of Fruitville, Rissler added, they could use the existing Circus Trail and then the trail that the City of Sarasota plans on the Bobby Jones Golf Club property. From the latter, she said, they eventually would be able to proceed north into what will become the county’s 17th Street Regional Park and then “pop out” at the intersection of Honore Avenue and 17th Street. The sidewalk at the latter location, she noted, is only about two blocks south of Benderson Park.

County staff already plans a multi-use recreational trail (MURT), she pointed out, that would be constructed south of the Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) power lines near the park. People then could proceed onto the trail system at Benderson Park, Rissler said.

This aerial image shows Nathan Benderson Park, with Cattlemen Road to the right. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Next, she showed the board members renderings of the planned Interstate 75 overpass, which will connect Lakewood Ranch to the park and areas to the south of it.

In February 2021, the commissioners approved what staff called Alternative 2, for the overpass design.

A county fact sheet in the agenda packet explained that Alternative 2 would cross the interstate north of the county water tower between North Cattlemen Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.

These are renderings of the I-75 overpass planned near Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The fact sheet also noted that the overpass plans entail a public-private partnership between the county and Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which is the developer of Lakewood Ranch.

The Project Development and Environment (PD&E) study is underway, thanks to that 2021 commission vote. Following its completion, the fact sheet added, staff expected the construction of the overpass would cost approximately $25 million, with the undertaking eligible for “local, state, and Federal Highway Administration funds.”

This is the North Sarasota Multimodal Connector design that the County Commission approved in February 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question this week about the timeline for the conclusion of the PD&E study, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant said that that is anticipated this fall. In the meantime, she added, the firm handling the study, Kissinger Campo & Associates, will be hosting a public hearing on the initiative, on behalf of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the county and FDOT. No definitive date has been set for that hearing, she wrote in a May 18 email, but it likely will be “in July/August of this year.” That meeting also will cover the PD&E findings, she noted.

Moreover, Grant pointed out, even though the commissioners settled on Alternative 2, the “no-build alternative remains viable through the public hearing.”

This is a close-up of typical sections of the multimodal connector. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, she wrote, in spite of what the fact sheet indicated, no construction timelines have been developed, as the funding for the connector “has not been identified.”

Not only will the North Sarasota Multimodal Connector serve bicyclists and pedestrians, a Feb. 9, 2021 PowerPoint presentation said, but it will reduce traffic congestion on Fruitville Road and University Parkway.

Update on the North Port Connector and trailhead improvements

During the May 10 County Commission meeting, Rissler of PRNR also showed the board members a video, taken by a drone, of a bridge being “flown” into place, via crane, over Deer Prairie Creek for the North Port Connector.

This image shows a crane “flying” a section of the bridge. Image courtesy Sarasota Drone Guy, via Sarasota County

“It’s pretty cool how they set these bridges,” she said of the contractor’s crew members.

The video was posted on May 5 on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page.

Staff noted that the bridge is 100 feet long; two segments were fitted together by the construction crew.

“This bridge is the first bridge trail users will cross on their way to the City of North Port, and it serves as a wonderful milestone for The Legacy Trail extension project,” the Facebook post said. “The second, larger bridge over North Port’s R36 drainage canal is scheduled to fly in the next week or two. Construction progress is on schedule to complete this summer with a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for mid-August.”

Following the May 10 video presentation to the commissioners, Chair Alan Maio had a one-word reaction: “Wow.”

Further, Rissler said of the North Port Connector, “They are on track to start getting pavement on the ground here pretty soon.”

This image shows the bridge, with the two segments attached, being swung into place over Deer Prairie Creek. Image courtesy Sarasota Drone Guy, via Sarasota County

Commissioners Ron Cutsinger and Christian Ziegler lauded Rissler and her staff for the fast progress on the Trail, including the North Port Connector.

Ziegler noted the importance of the segment, as North Port is the largest municipality in the county.

Cutsinger also talked of his desire to see The Legacy Trail eventually connected to North River Road, whose improvements are underway through a Florida Department of Transportation project, and then on to Englewood and areas south, via the Gulf Coast Trail.

He did note that former Commissioner Hines is working on the latter project.

And in a couple of other Legacy Trail notes: A county staff update emailed to persons who have signed up for Legacy Trail news included the reminder that improvements are underway at Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch, which was the terminus for The Legacy Trail until the North Extension segments were completed. That project is anticipated to be finished this summer.

“[V]ery limited parking” is available at Culverhouse Nature Park, the update added. “Please utilize a different trailhead for parking during this time.”

Second, the Osprey Junction Trailhead also is closed, as improvements are underway there, as well. It is scheduled to reopen this fall.

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