Last-minute donations pour in to complete campaign to preserve Orange Hammock Ranch from development

Owners of Sunset Automotive in Sarasota credited with making sure Conservation Foundation met $1.5-million goal

Orange Hammock Ranch long has been prized by environmental advocates because of its pristine state and its plethora of native vegetation and wildlife. Image courtesy SRQ360 Photography via Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

On the morning of May 22, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast was $300,000 away from securing the $1.5 million it needed to close the deal on the 5,777-acre Orange Hammock Ranch, as The Sarasota News Leader reported.

And the Osprey-based nonprofit had about 10 days to raise the rest of that money.

Later on May 22, however, another $100,000 challenge grant came in, bolstering a $300,000 matching grant that already had been offered.

Then, on May 24, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an article about the June 1 deadline on which the Foundation was working. That date was set in February, as part of the Florida Cabinet’s decision to allocate $19.5 million in Florida Forever funds for the purchase of the property in southeastern Sarasota County. The price was set at $21 million. Thus, the Foundation immediately began pursuit of the remaining funds.

Orange Hammock could be described as the “Holy Grail” for environmental advocates in the region. The Conservation Foundation had made the property’s preservation from development a priority for more than 10 years, finally getting the ranch a spot on the Florida Forever list in 2013.

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. Image courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

Following the news media coverage about the urgency of meeting the June 1 deadline, “A lot of donations came in over the weekend,” Christine Johnson, president of the Foundation, told the News Leader in a May 28 telephone interview.

Then, she continued, “I got a call from Bob Geyer. He and Joan wanted to help us complete the campaign,” Johnson explained. (The Geyers own Sunset Automotive Group in Sarasota.)

Johnson said that when she spoke with Bob Geyer on Tuesday, she told him her staff was still adding up all the thousands of dollars in the most recent contributions. He assured her, Johnson added, that he and his wife would make up any gap to meet the $1.5-million mark.

“It was just remarkable,” Johnson told the News Leader, describing the Geyers’ offer to help. “It is truly remarkable that the community came together in this short amount of time … especially given where we are with people hurting with this [novel coronavirus pandemic], and we are enormously grateful.”

“Every donation got us here,” Johnson stressed.

Suzanne Gregory, director of programs & marketing for the Foundation, told the News Leader in a May 28 email, “We had more than 750 gifts of all sizes.”

“It just goes to show you the power the press still has,” Johnson told the News Leader.

In a May 26 news release announcing the success of the campaign, Johnson said, “Saving land as significant as Orange Hammock Ranch is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This success means protection for our drinking water, habitat for wildlife, and public open space for all to explore and enjoy.”

In a telephone interview with the News Leader that day, Gregory pointed out, “People know how important, I think, nature is to our way of life here.”

In the May 22 news release about the $100,000 challenge grant that came in that day, Johnson also noted, “During this pandemic, we’ve seen people flocking to our public open spaces underlining the human value of places to enjoy nature. Orange Hammock Ranch will be open to the public, all 5,777 acres!”

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

The ranch is located north of Interstate 75 within the City of North Port. It connects the RV Griffin Preserve with the Longino Preserve through about 6 miles of shared boundaries. Orange Hammock’s protected status increases the 120,000-acre buffer surrounding the Myakka River and strengthens the connection between the Myakka and Peace rivers, the Foundation noted in its news releases. “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,” the Foundation has explained.

“The property is also nearly pristine, with natural areas in better condition than many public lands,” the Foundation points out. More than 200 wetlands are intermixed with pine flatwood, globally imperiled dry prairie and other native habitat. Given its location “and exceptional natural condition,” the Foundation says, Orange Hammock Ranch also is viable habitat for the Florida panthers, which are breeding in the nearby Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area.

As the Sarasota Journal reported, the property formerly was known as the McCall Ranch. Later, it was called the Isles of Athena, the Journal added, after the City of North Port annexed it in 2000, with plans for the development of 15,000 homes. After those plans fell through, “the property remained in its natural state,” the Journalpointed out.