Negotiations to begin again in effort to transfer ownership of Little Salt Spring to Sarasota County

University of Miami wants to donate the archaeologically significant site to the county

A graphic shows the location of Little Salt Spring. Image courtesy Sarasota County

About four years ago, Sarasota County was unable to conclude negotiations to take over ownership of a significant archaeological site in South County. The opportunity has arisen once again.

County Commission Chair Nancy Detert announced this week that University of Miami leaders have been talking about “giving us [the] 112 acres [of Little Salt Spring] for free.”

In 1982, the University of Miami became owner of Little Salt Spring outside North Port, thanks to a donation. In 2013, university leaders let the Sarasota County Commission know they were interested in selling the property.

Artifacts more than 12,000 years old have been discovered in the spring. As Detert said this week of the site, “It’s really a worldwide jewel. It’s a rarity.”

The commissioners were eager in 2013 to try to work out a deal with the University of Miami (UM). Little Salt Spring should be protected as a limited-access archaeological and ecological preserve, then-Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out at that time.

During an August 2013 interview with The SarasotaNews Leader, Steve Koski, who served as site manager and a research associate for the University of Miami’s Little Salt Spring Research Facility from July 2008 to July 2013, talked about the value of the property. Little Salt Spring, he said, is “one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Southeast.”

Researchers had unearthed an extinct species of tortoise on a shelf 90 feet below the surface, for example, he noted, and they also had found a sharp stake a hunter might have used 12,000 years ago to impale the turtle.

Little Salt Spring. Image courtesy of Curt Bowen

In 2005, Koski — who then was a project archaeologist with New South Associates — excavated an 8,000-year-old pendant made with a green stone that originated at least 600 miles from the spring. The stone suggested to researchers that prehistoric people in Florida had an exchange network stretching into the Carolinas, Koski explained to the News Leader.

He later became the county archaeologist.

As of late October 2013, UM and county representatives seemed far apart on terms. The university had paid for an appraisal that had estimated the value of the land at $2.11 million, but commissioners voiced concern about the county’s assuming maintenance and security expenses.

Later, the university offered to donate the property to the county. A Dec. 20, 2013 letter from UM General Counsel Maria Gralia said, “I am pleased to announce that the Board of Trustees of the University of Miami has approved the donation of the property known as Little Salt Spring located in the City of [North Port], Sarasota County, Florida to Sarasota County for inclusion in the Environmentally Sensitive Land Acquisition Programs.”

Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out during the board’s regular meeting on April 24 that then-County Administrator Tom Harmer and County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh made multiple trips to Miami to meet with university leaders. They “spent hours and hours and hours” trying to work out the details, he added of Harmer and DeMarsh.

With no conclusion to the negotiations, by early 2016, the University of West Florida (UWF) in Pensacola was seeking to acquire Little Salt Spring from the University of Miami. As a state senator, Detert became involved in that effort, as DeMarsh reported in a memo to the County Commission.

Commission Chair Nancy Detert. Rachel Hackney photo

Ultimately, in May 2016, Megan Gonzalez, executive director of university marketing and communications for UWF, told the News Leaderin an email, “We continue to work with the University of Miami to develop transfer documents and a budget for operation.” However, she added, “We did not receive [a legislative] appropriation this year to improve and expand educational use of the site, and that delayed accomplishment of our mutual goals. We are hopeful that we will receive the appropriation in a future year.”​

During the April 24 County Commission meeting, Detert explained that the professor who has been leading the UM research program at Little Salt Spring is planning to retire. She is doubtful, she said, that the university will continue the program after he leaves the faculty.

If the county takes over the site, she continued, some of the area around the spring could be developed for ecotourism.

Detert added that there are “probably millions of 10,000-year-old artifacts in [the spring].”

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner had called her about the University of Miami’s interest in giving the property to Sarasota County. “I would hope that you all would think about that and see if you have an appetite for pursuing that negotiation once again,” she told her colleagues.

“If it’s available again,” Commissioner Alan Maio responded, “I think we need to proceed. Through no fault of ours, [the negotiations] didn’t work last time.”
“I appreciate that [support],” Detert replied.

Commissioner Hines looked at DeMarsh and laughingly told him, “Dust off that old file.”

“I agree,” Hines said, about pursuing negotiations once more.

“I think it’s a lofty goal,” Detert responded. “I think it’d be a feather in our cap.”