On unanimous vote, County Commission approves conservation easements for three ‘Quads’ next to Celery Fields, to protect them permanently from development

Sarasota Audubon Society to manage the parcels

This graphic shows the Quads parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On the morning of Oct. 6, Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, stepped up to the podium in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.

In November 2019, she reminded the board members, they voted unanimously to direct county staff to work with the Foundation and the Sarasota Audubon Society to place conservation easements on three of the “Quads” parcels the county owns next to the Celery Fields. The Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Quads would be protected from development, as residents had been requesting over the previous two-and-a-half years.

Eleven months later, to the day,” Johnson said on Oct. 6, “we are delighted and ready to celebrate with you, county staff, Sarasota Audubon Society and all of Sarasota County citizens this historic public/private collaboration.”

Commissioner Alan Maio had asked that an item be pulled that morning from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters for just such a celebration. No. 18 on the list of 22 proposed actions called for the formal granting of the easements promised in 2019. The second part of the agenda item called for a board vote on the management contract with the Sarasota Audubon Society.

“You are protecting the nationally recognized, environmentally sensitive Celery Fields forever,” “Johnson told the commissioners.

In 2017, with plans having been proposed for a yard waste and construction recycling facility on the Southwest Quad, advocates for the Celery Fields launched a campaign to urge the commissioners to maintain the Quads as a buffer for the county stormwater project that had become an internationally known bird-watching area.

This graphic, provided to the County Commission in advance of the Oct. 6 meeting, shows the Quads and the Celery Fields. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A group called Save Our Celery Fields gathered thousands of signatures on petitions, organized rallies and communicated with the commissioners about the need to preserve the Quads.

The board members finally voted 3-2 to deny the petitions the company TST Ventures had sought for its project on the Southwest Quad.

Subsequent discussions led the commissioners to ask a residents group called the Fresh Start Initiative to work on possible uses of the Quads that would be compatible with the Celery Fields. Although the board members ended up rejecting the group’s ideas in 2018, the residents’ efforts set the stage for the Conservation Foundation and Sarasota Audubon leaders to begin working on the conservation easement strategy.

“Thank you for listening to the community and strengthening our county’s environmental legacy,” Johnson of the Foundation told the commissioners on Oct. 6.

A page of an August 2017 county fact sheet on the Quads offers details about the history of the parcels at that time. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Jeanne Dubi, acting president of Sarasota Audubon, called the board’s November 2019 vote “a wonderful solution to a sticky problem of what do to with [the Quads].” She later referred to the “grassroots movement that brought the fate of the [Quads] into focus.”

“We were able to ensure that our future restoration on these [Quads] parcels will complement the environmental, scenic, recreational, educational and civic benefits of the area,” Johnson said. “We will safeguard this existing wildlife habitat of the Celery Fields with additional trees and shrubs that provide different but complementary places for birds and wildlife to live and thrive and for people to enjoy.”

During her remarks, Dubi noted that Sarasota Audubon will oversee “the restoration and management of [the Quads].”

The nonprofit organization, she continued, also is “prepared to raise substantial funds to make this agreement [with the county] a success.”

The management agreement is for a term of 10 years. However, the document notes that Sarasota Audubon “may request an extension” for up to two more 10-year periods.

That agreement also gives Sarasota Audubon the right to “construct environmental restoration, water quality improvements, stormwater and drainage improvements, native plantings, paths and trails, recreational amenities and structures, fences, bathrooms, parking, and educational signage and facilities on the [Quads], in accordance with a Management Plan reviewed and approved by the County …”

“A genuine thank you to both of you,” Chair Michael Moran responded to Johnson and Dubi.

Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion to put the conservation easements into effect and to approve the management agreement with Sarasota Audubon, and Commissioner Charles Hines seconded it.

“Thank you for thanking us,” Detert told the two women. “I think there was a lot to be learned in the process … and I would hope the people who care about the environment would have learned from the way you approached us compared to the way that others approached us.”

Detert added, “There’s a difference between picketing, wearing T-shirts and [waving] signs or pulling up a chair to the table and working toward solutions.”

On Aug. 23, 2017, opponents of the TST Ventures’ recycling plant proposal for one of the Quads parcels stand along Ringling Boulevard, outside the County Administration Center. File photo

“There’s a lot of people that spread a lot of misinformation on that area, when it comes to the board,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, referring to the Quads. “They typically show up in droves, and then when you have the good news and moving forward … it’s a shame they’re not back here in the audience, listening.”

“I think we came up with something that’s very valuable to our community and future generations,” Detert continued. “It’s wonderful to have these points of pride that you can ride around and say, ‘I saved that place.’”

Hines said he was happy that Maio pulled the item from the Consent Agenda to ensure it had more attention that morning. “This took multiple years to come together,” Hines added of the plans involving the Conservation Foundation and Sarasota Audubon. When people understand how best to advocate for something, he continued, “the solution [becomes] very easy to see.”

Details of the decisions

The conservation easements document points out that the Celery Fields encompasses 440 acres in the Phillippi Creek and Sarasota Bay watersheds. The stormwater project, it adds, “prevents flooding by attenuating runoff from [more than] 3,000 acres of land upstream; and the Celery Fields improve downstream water quality, capture sediment, are a nationally recognized birding site, are popular with recreation and fitness enthusiasts, and are used for environmental education field trips …”

The Quads, it notes, were part of the land the county acquired in 1994 to create the Celery Fields.

The document further explains that limiting future activities envisioned on the three Quads parcels is intended to increase the value of the Celery Fields.

This is a survey of the Southwest Quad, prepared in advance of the board action on the conservation easements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The three parcels that constitute the Protected Property shall be considered a single parcel and shall not be transferred individually,” the agreement continues. “The subdivision of the Protected Property into smaller parcels or multiple ownerships, whether through legal or de facto subdivision, including divisions through the creation of condominiums, timeshares, or other means is prohibited,” it says.

The Conservation Foundation and Sarasota Audubon will have the right to construct buildings on the Southwest Quad, though the structures cannot have a combined footprint of more than 40,000 square feet, the agreement points out. The overall improvements cannot take up more than 6 acres.

Further, the vertical height of any buildings on that site may not exceed 45 feet, and those structures would have to stand on the westerly portion of the Southwest Quad.

Other improvements permitted on the parcel are driveways, sidewalks, pavilions and parking areas, but they cannot comprise more than 2.5 acres, “excluding landscaped areas.”

Additionally, another section of the Southwest Quad — no more than 0.25 acres — can include a bathroom, pavilion and parking area, the agreement says. Those amenities would have to be restricted to the eastern portion of that Quad, the document notes.