Over 34% of county land protected from development

County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources director provides update to commissioners on latest acquisitions through county programs funded by voter-approved tax

On the same day that the Sarasota County commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution to provide more flexibility to county staff’s use of funds from the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program (NPP), they also learned from the director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) that over 34% of the entire county has been protected from development.

Altogether, Nicole Rissler, director of PRNR, told the commissioners on June 13, the county has completed agreements to preserve 76,610 acres. Another 49,291 acres in the county have been protected by state agencies, municipalities and private land trusts, and through other action, she added. Thus, the total is 125,901 acres.

This fiscal year — which began on Oct. 1, 2022 — staff has been able to conclude fee simple purchases of 18,429.7 acres with funds the county receives through the ESLPP. That program’s revenue comes from a 25-cent, voter-approved annual property tax for county landowners. “Fee simple” means the county has full and complete ownership of the property. A “fee simple interest stretches out in time forever,” Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains.

Another 21,520.26 acres have been protected by conservation easements, Rissler noted on June 13.

Additionally, 116.85 acres of neighborhood parkland have been acquired through fee simple purchases, Rissler told the board members.

The funds from the ESLPP and Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program cover most of the county’s purchases, Rissler pointed out. Park Impact Fees and General Fund revenue is used in some situations, however, she acknowledged.

The largest source of money for the General Fund is the property tax revenue that owners of county parcels pay each year. The General Fund pays for the operations of county departments that do not generate their own revenue, as well as those of the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.

During her presentation, Rissler ran down the list of properties that staff had acquired between May 2022 and May of this year:

  • Eastern Ranchlands Flint Conservation Easement — July 27, 2022, involving 542 acres of native habitat; the expense was $1,935,000. The property is located at 27010 Harrison Road in Sidell, a county document notes. It is directly across State Road 72 from the Howze Family and Hall properties, which also are protected by conservation easements, the document says.
  • Old Miakka Crowley Museum & Nature Center Conservation Easement — Aug. 31, 2022, involving approximately 191 acres of native habitat; the expense was $709,000. That land is located at 16405 Myakka Road in Sarasota; it borders the Myakka River and Manatee County to the east, with “Myakka River State Park lying due south and Old Miakka Preserve to the north,” the county document points out.
  • Myakka State Forest Addition Bankers Insurance Co. Property — Dec. 21, 2022, involving about 25 acres of habitat that will enable county staff to “expand conservation efforts along the Wild and Scenic Myakka River, and create greenway corridors for wildlife” and allow for public recreation; the expense was $752,500. The land is located on Myakka Drive in Venice.
  • Eastern Ranchlands LPI Real Estate and Partnerships LLC property — Feb. 15 of this year, involving approximately 290 acres of native habitat; the expense was $1.9 million. The land is located on State Road 72 in Sidell and is directly across State Road 72 from the Panning Family and Gant properties, which the county has protected with conservation easements.
  • Warm Mineral Springs Friendship Club Property — April 14 of this year, involving about 0.6 acres that will “help fill a gap in the conservation corridor buffering the creek, a tributary of the Myakka River and a winter refuge for West Indian manatees,” the county report says; the expense was $57,000. The land is located in unincorporated Sarasota County on Warm Mineral Springs Drive in North Port.
  • Sleeping Turtles Preserve South Welsh Property — May 26 of this year, involving about 3 acres; the expense was $690,000. The property is located at 4055 East Venice Ave. in Venice, adjacent to Snook Haven Park. That property will “protect native habitat and connect existing greenway corridors for wildlife and public recreation,” as well, the document explains.
  • Curry Creek Preserve Edmondson Farms Property — earlier this month, involving 32 acres. “This is a really special acquisition,” Rissler emphasized. The family members “wanted to leave a legacy … here.” (See the related article in this issue.)

Rissler pointed out to the commissioners that staff is in negotiations, as well, to purchase 662 acres of the Eastern Ranchlands Longino Ranch property. That land will be preserved through a conservation easement, too, she added. The closing is scheduled for late this year.

“I will note that we have been working cooperatively with really renewed effort over the last couple of years with [the Communications Department]” to ensure that, with every new acquisition, a video is produced about the property, she explained to the commissioners, and new signage visible from the closest road is erected.

More land acquisition negotiations are underway, Rissler noted. They involve approximately 800 acres that would be protected through conservation easements, plus up to 30 acres of neighborhood parkland.

“Just excellent work,” Chair Ron Cutsinger told Rissler at the conclusion of her presentation.

“I think it would be a great thing,” he added, to have ribbon-cutting events whenever the county staff does acquire more property through the ESLPP and NPP programs, so the public is more aware of the county’s efforts to preserve natural lands. “It’s a story that we tell,” he said, “but [it] just really doesn’t seem to get any traction.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Cutsinger suggested, would showcase the efforts and “just create a little excitement.”

He also noted that publicity about those events would be valuable as county staff — at the board’s request — plans to put a referendum on the 2026 ballot that calls for a continuation of the ESLPP/NPP land acquisition programs.

The funding change

The related item on the commission’s June 13 agenda involved adoption of a resolution that will allow up to 25% of the funds the county receives from the voter-approved, 0.25-mill property tax for the land acquisition programs to be used for the management and maintenance of the parcels.

As a county staff memo in the agenda packet explained, from the 1999 fiscal year through the 2008 fiscal year, only 10% of the ESLPP/NPP ad valorem property revenue was used for management and maintenance. Yet, staff was able to build up a reserve fund. However, starting in the 2009 fiscal year, the memo noted, “expenditures began exceeding revenues, and the fund balance was utilized to make up the difference.”
Then, in the 2017 fiscal year, the board approved increasing the allocation for management and maintenance to 15%.

Earlier this year, Rissler of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources discussed with the commissioners the fact that, as the county has been acquiring more land, the maintenance/management fund has been stressed, given extra need for the money.

The increase in expenses in general, she pointed out during the board’s March 22 budget workshop, has exacerbated the situation. For example, Rissler said, in 2017, “It cost less than $1,000 to remove [exotic vegetative species] from 1 acre.” That figure has risen to almost $5,000, she added.

A county staff memo about that agenda item also pointed out that county staff had presented the proposal for the increase in the maintenance/management allocation to both the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee (ESLOC) and to the Parks Advisory and Recreation Council, both of which are county advisory boards. Each of those groups voted unanimously in favor of the increase.

It was during that March budget workshop discussion that the commissioners also agreed to plan for the 2026 referendum on the continuation of the land acquisition property tax.

1 thought on “Over 34% of county land protected from development”

  1. The County needs to creatively use this sensible direction. For example, the farm on Raymond Road south of Palmer Blvd is for sale. Usually a place where cows feed, it has been a bucolic complement to the marvelous birding wetlands of the Celery Fields right across Raymond. To acquire this 49-acre property as an additional buffer on the east side of the birding area would protect and preserve the value and purpose of the area overseen by Sarasota Audubon. Right now, the property is targeted by DR Horton – a massive developer who sees no problem with squeezing 160 homes on land that will require all sorts of buffers and water controls. The Celery Fields are themselves a significant public project to control water that otherwise could demolish homes downstream. There is no way a hard surface of 160 homes on this land will serve any purpose other than mere profit. See this story about how developments along the Mississippi are being protected by wetland restoration – even banks now love wetlands: http://sarasotavision2050.blogspot.com/2023/06/wetlands-can-protect-developments-but.html

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