Director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources provides update at Chair Maio’s request
Numerous times over the past year, Sarasota County Commission Chair Alan Maio has talked about the amount of land the county has preserved from development through a variety of measures.
He also has asked that the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) provide the board with regular updates about the amount of land. To that end, PRNR Director Nicole Rissler appeared before the commissioners on June 8 with a presentation on the properties the county has added to its list over the past 18 months.
Altogether, she noted, the county has more than 123,000 acres that are protected; the total represents over 33% of all the county’s land.
Commissioner Nancy Detert noted that the properties acquired over the past year-and-a-half cost the county approximately $6 million, based on materials in the board’s agenda packet. “I’m very pleased with that amount of money,” Detert added. “We’re all for spending money to protect environmentally sensitive land.”
“Sarasota County acquires parks and natural area lands through four funding sources,” Rissler explained. The two primary ones are the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program (NPP). Those are funded by an annual tax of 0.25 mills that property owners approved through a referendum. (The first vote was in March 1999; the second, in November 2005. The funding stream is authorized through 2029, the county website explains.)
“We do acquire some land through Park Impact Fees,” Rissler told the commissioners, “and, in some occasions, General Fund [money].”
The General Fund contains all of the county’s property tax payments, plus other types of revenue. It covers the operations of county departments and those of constitutional officers whose operations do not generate money. No constraints exist on how General Fund money can be used, so the board members occasionally turn to it when they need extra dollars for a specific purpose.
In the 2020 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2019, the county acquired the following properties, Rissler noted:
- The 1.6-acre site located at 4012 Webber St. in Sarasota, where the Sarasota Springs Trailhead for The Legacy Trail will be located; the parcel also will serve as a neighborhood park. (The cost was $188,000.)
- The 706-acre Gant property south of Clark Road, which “lies in the Eastern Ranchlands Protection Priority Site of the county, Rissler pointed out. It is home to whitetail deer, river otters, gopher tortoises, roseate spoonbills and bald eagles. ($1,546,000)
- The 1,272 acres of the Panning property, which is adjacent to the Gant land, she said. It also is in the Eastern Ranchlands Protection Priority Site. ($2,545,200)
The Gant and Panning lands are under conservation easements, Rissler noted.
- The Rocky Ford Lazy Dollar land along the Myakka River, which “provides floodplain protection and an expanded wildlife corridor,” Rissler said. That 20-acre parcel also has mesic hammock and flatwoods, as well as bottomland forest and blackwater stream, which county staff strives to protect. That property is located at 525 Gene Green Road in Nokomis. ($315,000)
- The 40-acre Old Miakka O’Neil Addition, which has native habitat for the bald eagle, the green-horned owl and the gopher tortoise. It is located on Myakka Road in Sarasota. ($1,150,000)
- The 40-acre Old Miakka MAG property on Jomar Road in Sarasota. It provides greenway corridors for wildlife, as well as opportunities for public recreation. ($562,100)
- The Patriots Park Legacy Trail Connector, which comprises 0.3 acres, came into county holdings through a public access easement granted by Tuscan Gardens of Venetia Bay Properties LLC, Rissler said, “at no cost.” It will enable pedestrians and bicyclists to get onto The Legacy Trail in Venice. County staff is responsible for the improvements to the easement and maintenance of it, she added.
- The 0.2-acre Nokomis Riverview Park Expansion, which comprises nine dock lots on a canal off Shakett Creek. That enhances access to The Legacy Trail and the creek, she noted. Located at 251 S. Riverview Drive, it was paid for with South County Impact Fees. ($35,100)
- Finally, Rissler pointed out that Orange Hammock Ranch, comprising about 5,755 acres, was acquired by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast helped raise the $1.5 million to supplement $19.5 million in Florida Forever funds to make that acquisition possible.
Rissler emphasized that protecting Orange Hammock long had been a county priority.
Thus far this fiscal year, she continued, staff has closed on one parcel, a 0.5-acre site at Warm Mineral Springs Creek in North Port. “It’s buffering the creek, which is a tributary of the Myakka River,” she said. It also serves as winter habitat for the West Indian manatee.
Staff is at work on four other acquisitions totaling 238 acres, Rissler noted, along with four more conservation easements adding up to 1,683 acres.
Another “49,200 or so acres” of the county are protected and/or in public ownership of the county’s municipalities, state agencies and private land trusts, she said.
“Citizens constantly bring forward nominations” for lands to be bought through the ESLPP and NPP programs, Chair Maio noted. The acquisition process takes time, he explained, partly because appraisals are necessary.
Then Commissioner Detert pointed out, “The highest taxed county in the state is Monroe County, because they have the Keys.”
She explained that protecting lands such as those on Rissler’s list means “we’re taking [them] off the tax rolls.” Most of Monroe County, Detert added, “is off the tax rolls. … That’s a contribution, too, that also should be recognized.”
Maio asked Rissler for a copy of her list for each commissioner. Since he has been talking about protected county lands, he added, he expects his colleagues have been getting more questions about the details. “This way, they’re armed with that [information for constituents].”
In the future, Rissler told the board members, she will provide biannual updates with details about newly acquired lands.