Sarasota Audubon and Conservation Foundation of Gulf Coast reveal proposals during Feb. 15 ‘sneak preview’
The Sarasota Audubon Society and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast are inviting the public to an open house this weekend to view the concept design created for the 33-acre “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields.
The open house will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 19, at Audubon’s Nature Center. That facility stands at 999 Center Road in Sarasota.
Members of both the Conservation Foundation and Audubon teams will be on-site to answer questions about what they are calling “the re-wilding of this community land,” a news release points out.
The Quads, which are located at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road, buffer the western edge of the Celery Fields. Among the improvements the two organizations have envisioned are extensive plantings, meadows, woodland areas, additional trails, high and low points of terrain along a meandering stream, shaded picnic areas, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant walkways, a bird blind/observation platform, and a “discovery area” for children, the release says.
The project management team includes Steve Suau of Progressive Water Resources, site plan engineering firm Kimley-Horn of Sarasota, and construction manager Willis Smith Construction of Sarasota, the release adds.
In October 2020, the release explains, the Sarasota County Commission approved “a unique public-private partnership,” agreeing to give the Conservation Foundation a conservation easement on the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest Quads, thus ensuring protection forever for the land. “Sarasota Audubon Society will manage the properties,” the release notes.
The Quads were part of the 300 acres the county purchased in 1994 to create the regional stormwater facility that is the Celery Fields, which has become an internationally known bird-watching destination.
As Sarasota Audubon puts it on its website, “The Celery Fields is a recognized birding hotspot of national and international significance as well as the county’s primary stormwater collection zone. It is vital to water quality and flood protection in the area and to Phillippi Creek and Little Sarasota Bay.”
On its website, the Conservation Foundation says that more than 240 species of birds have been recorded at the Celery Fields. The partnership involving the Foundation, Sarasota Audubon Society and Sarasota County “will be a community conservation success story that lives on for generations to come,” the Foundation points out.
A years-long process
Even before a split County Commission vote in August 2017 to deny Sarasota businessman James Gabbert’s application to build a construction and demolition and yard waste recycling center on the Southwest Quad, members of the public had urged the commissioners to protect the four parcels. Given their location next to the Celery Fields, community members said, the commission should not allow any uses on the Quads that would detract from the Celery Fields or cause disruption to the vast number of avian species that gather in the area each winter.
During the Aug. 23, 2017 public hearing, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “Part of our job as county commissioners is that we can design the best community that we can design. Everything’s changed out there [in the proposed project area] because of the Celery Fields. … We should take [the Quads] off of the [county’s] surplus [lands] list and, frankly, use it to [enhance the Celery Fields] …”
The Quads were placed on that surplus list in 1997.
Finally, in November 2019, the commissioners voted unanimously to direct county staff to work with the Conservation Foundation and the Sarasota Audubon Society to place the conservation easements on the three Quads. (The Northwest Quad is home to a county fire station.) However, that decision followed the commission’s decision to allow a group called the Fresh Start Initiative to work on possible uses of the Quads that would be compatible with the Celery Fields. The board members ended up rejecting Fresh Start’s proposals in 2018.
One of the leaders of the Fresh Start Initiative, Tom Matrullo of Sarasota, was present for the Feb. 15 unveiling of the concepts for the Quads.
In a Feb. 15 blog post for members and supporters of the Fresh Start Initiative, Matrullo wrote of his delight with the “sneak preview” and offered hope that the County Commission would agree to the proposals.
“Jeanne Dubi [president of Sarasota Audubon] and Christine Johnson [president of the Conservation Foundation] made clear that the goal is about ‘more than birds’ — it will be ‘a teaching and learning site,’ said Dubi,” Matrullo explained of the three Quads. “It will be about re-wilding, buffering, restoring clean water, introducing plants, trees and other features that will attract a greater variety of birds, give them resting places as they migrate between continents, and areas for local birds to forage and nest.
“The greatest changes will come to the southeast parcel,” he continued. “They include woodland habitat through new forestation, a meadow and a ‘ravine,’ with a bird blind and weir. The northeast parcel will include grading the bottom of the retention pond so that birds can wade without falling into deep water. The water from the retention pond would feed an entirely new feature, a ‘ravine’ on the southeast parcel — coming under Palmer Boulevard then surfacing on that parcel.”
Matrullo added, “Beyond bringing back the natural potential, there’s room on the southwest parcel for humans — parking, recreation, open areas with picnic tables, bathrooms. Six acres of this parcel were reserved by the County for a government building at the western end, next to James Gabbert’s Waste Transfer Facility [which Gabbert constructed on private property].
“There will also be internships for folks interested in learning about water, soil, carbon sequestration, working with government, and more, said Dubi,” as Matrullo noted.
“She credited the community with rising up to protect the Celery Fields,” he wrote, adding, “‘We’re all in this together.'”
Sarasota Audubon and the Conservation Foundation are raising funds to improve the three Quads “for people, birds, and other wildlife,” the Foundation news release notes. Anyone interested in contributing may visit conservationfoundation.com/quads or sarasotaaudubon.org/donate.