Orange Hammock Ranch negotiations at standstill

Commissioner Maio reports on status of months-long process and provides update on Peace River Manasota Regional Water Authority capacity planning

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

Negotiations over the purchase of the 5,744-acre Orange Hammock Ranch in South County have come to a halt, Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio reported during the regular commission meeting on Jan. 29.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) had taken the lead in the talks, Maio reminded his colleagues. That organization and the county each had set aside $9 million, and the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority had committed $2 million to the purchase, Maio added. The goal had been to conserve the vast majority of the property as an environmental connection between the Myakka River and the Peace River, Maio noted.

During the last formal update on negotiations, Carolyn Brown, then-director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), offered a report to the county commissioners and the North Port commissioners as the boards held a joint meeting on June 6, 2017.

The county and SWFWMD had offered their $18 million on March 20, 2017 to Dykes Everett & Co. in Orlando — the firm representing the owners of Orange Hammock Ranch, Brown said. On April 3, 2017, she added, Dykes Everett had responded with a counter offer of $22 million in cash, with a closing date of Sept. 30, 2017.

Under its governing policy, she explained, SWFWMD could pay up to 90% of the appraised value of a parcel, so the district had up to $9 million to commit to Orange Hammock Ranch.

Dry prairie is just one part of the Orange Hammock Ranch’s features. Image courtesy Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast

On Jan. 29, Maio noted that two rounds of appraisals of Orange Hammock Ranch had been authorized during the negotiations. About a week and a half ago, he continued, “The owners … didn’t reject our latest offer but didn’t accept it.”

Maio added, “The best people that negotiate these large purchases were involved in this, and we just could not make it happen, and we’ve tried for quite a while.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comment on Maio’s remarks, Susanna Martinez Tarokh, SWFWMD’s public information officer, wrote in an email, “The District and the owner of Orange Hammock Ranch negotiated in good faith for the District’s purchase of the property. In the end, the District’s offer of $19.5 [million] did not meet the owners’ expectations.”

After hearing his comments during the Jan. 29 meeting, Maio said, people interested in the purchase and the conservation plans involving Orange Hammock most likely would contact him. “Whatever help any organization can give us in convincing the owners to sell to us is welcomed.”

In a Jan. 31 telephone interview with the News Leader, Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, said she spoke with Maio on Monday, so she was aware of the situation. “The Conservation Foundation stands ready to help in any way, shape or form to save Orange Hammock Ranch,” she said. “This is an enormously important piece to preserve, for drinking water, recreation and habitat.”

Before SWFWMD became involved in the negotiations, the Conservation Foundation worked to acquire the property.

Better news

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

On the positive side, Maio noted, he had an update from the Peace River Authority regarding its plans for a third reservoir on the RV Griffin Reserve, which SWFWMD owns.

The Authority serves Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, as well as the City of North Port.

First, though, Maio — who chairs the Authority board — reported that the reservoirs “are just about full. We move between 14 [million] and 15-and-a-half million gallons of reserves. That’s how we get through the dry season.”

Maio added, “We still are only using about 70% of our capacity to develop water [for the members of the authority].”

After the Authority board approved an application for a 50-year permit that includes plans for the third reservoir, he reminded his colleagues, a 30-day comment period was mandatory. During that time, he continued, a lawsuit was filed against the water authority. “[It] … has been amicably settled.” Last week, he added, the last of the 11 parties involved in the litigation signed off on a settlement.

Polk County was the primary plaintiff in the litigation. The settlement, outlined in November 2018, called for the Peace River Authority to reduce by up to 48 million gallons a day the amount of water it would withdraw from the Peace River, if the Polk Regional Water Cooperative issued a notice of intent to seek a permit to withdraw water from the river.

The permit will allow for the Peace River Authority to withdraw up to 258 million gallons a day.

Polk County leaders had voiced concern about the potential negative impact of that action on their water needs, the Ledger reported.

On Feb. 26, Maio said, SWFWMD’s board is expected to issue the permit for the third reservoir.

“It fairly dramatically increases our ability [to store water],” Maio added of the plans. Even with their anticipated continued increase in population over the coming years, he said, the Peace River Authority members should have ample water. Right now, he noted, the supply has been deemed sufficient for the next 20 years. With the third reservoir, he added, the Authority will have enough water for its customers for the next 50 years.

The Authority provides an average of 25 million gallons of water a day to its members, its website says.

“We are full speed ahead on building that third reservoir,” Maio emphasized, adding that he foresees its completion within the next three to five years.

This is the latest water supply information on the Peace River Authority website. ‘ASR’ refers to the organization’s aquifer storage and recovery wells. ‘BG’ stands for billon gallons. Image from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Authority website

The Authority has hired a consultant to undertake an environmental study that will determine the exact site of the new reservoir on the RV Griffin Reserve, Maio pointed out. The study will include details about the mitigation of wetlands that will be affected by the construction, he said.

Originally, the Authority board had planned on mitigation on Orange Hammock Ranch, he explained. In fact, it was expecting to spend up to $4 million on that initiative, he said.

Orange Hammock is contiguous to the western border of the Griffin Reserve.

The failure to achieve success in the negotiations for Orange Hammock, he noted, “will not impact the design and permitting and construction of the third reservoir,” as other options for mitigation are available.