July meeting of representatives from five organizations saw agreement on a variety of issues, including the desire to see all of the ranch conserved, Conservation Foundation president says
The owners of Orange Hammock Ranch have made it clear to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast that they want “‘significant movement’ before they extend [the Foundation’s] option [to purchase the property], which expires Oct. 4.” That was the message Christine Johnson, president of the Foundation, delivered to the Sarasota County Commission and the North Port Commission during the boards’ joint meeting on Sept. 12 in Venice.
Her understanding, Johnson continued, is that that means “seeing that there is a sincere conversation regarding funding commitments.”
She told the boards, “Time is of the essence.”
The Orlando real estate firm of Dykes Everett has the 5,774-acre ranch listed at $22,807,300, or $3,950 per acre.
A Sept. 6 memo to the County Commission from Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, notes that a state-certified appraiser, Ronald M. Saba, appraised the property at $20.2 million in a March 28 report to county staff.
Brown noted in her memo that during initial discussions about the potential purchase of the property to ensure its conservation, the Foundation was looking to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) “to be the primary funder for the acquisition …” That discussion also “was based on a financial contribution of approximately $3.5 [million from] Sarasota County,” Brown pointed out. “The funding contributions have not been finalized,” she added, but the money could come through the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program.
“For these folks … that want to see ‘significant movement,’ I presume you told them that the four neighboring county commissions, [the North Port Commission and the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority] all unanimously voiced their support for this purchase,” County Commission Chair Al Maio told Johnson on Sept. 12.
“Yes,” she said, adding that she also had sent them the letters of support she had received, including the one from the County Commission.
“Tell them that we think that’s significant,” Maio replied.
Johnson laughed and then responded, “I have told them I think it’s significant.”
Johnson pointed out that the Foundation hosted a kickoff meeting at its Osprey headquarters on July 19 to discuss funding and management matters regarding the ranch. SWFWMD’s contribution to the acquisition of the property, she continued, “ideally would be from [its] Florida Forever allocations.” She was referring to the conservation program that operates through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The potential also exists for other state money to come from Florida Forever, Johnson added, “but that’s difficult, tenuous and certainly not timely.”
Past and present
During her presentation, Johnson explained that five of the six organizations represented at the July 19 session in Osprey “had tried to do something with this property over the last two decades. Four have tried multiple times.”
Brown’s memo to the County Commission noted that since Orange Hammock Ranch originally was identified by county staff for acquisition in 1998, the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program has purchased more than 15,750 acres “and protected an additional 11,400 acres through conservation easements.”
The agreement the five entities reached on July 19, Johnson said, is “that we all want to conserve all of the ranch. … This time, we all believe … it has an excellent chance of getting done.”
Still, she acknowledged, negotiations with the owners are sensitive.
Along with SWFWMD, the participants in that session represented Sarasota County, the City of North Port, the Peace River Authority and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
“The size of 5,774 acres is hard for most people to wrap their head around,” Johnson pointed out. “That size allows for variations in views from vast vistas to close woods.”
Add in the lands to the north and to the east, she continued, “and it will mean that the ecosystems that work today to clean the water, hold water and provide habitat for so many species — some of which are endangered — will be protected and working for our community forever.”
During the July 19 meeting, she noted, the representatives of the organizations agreed that ownership and management of the property “can be separated from each other.” All of them also concurred that public access to at least part of the ranch is a goal, she added. However, they also agreed that not all of the land needs to be open to the public and that different activities can be pursued on different parts of it.
In her memo, Brown explained, “The recreational value and uses of this property for the public [are] somewhat limited due to the hydrology of the site. The current owners are managing hunts on the property and this practice could potentially continue through a partnership with FWC.”
Some of the agencies identified themselves as possible partners for management under a few different scenarios, Johnson noted on Sept. 12. A “plethora of details need to be worked out,” she said, but “our next step is funding. We can’t do anything … unless we know we have the funding to purchase Orange Hammock Ranch.”