Water Management District envisions selling part of Orange Hammock Ranch for development, if it and Sarasota County can finalize purchase of the land

County administrator advises his board of the news a day after the North Port vice mayor suggested to the county commissioners and her colleagues that part of the ranch should go on the tax roll

The Dykes Everett & Co. website features this image of part of the Orange Hammock Ranch property. Photo from the firm’s website

North Port’s vice mayor surprised Sarasota County commissioners last week when she confessed to continued interest in seeing part of Orange Hammock Ranch’s 5,744 acres developed as a means of adding to the city’s tax base.

Yet, a day after the two boards discussed efforts of county staff and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to purchase and conserve the entirety of the property, County Administrator Tom Harmer had what might be called another surprise for his board.

In an email he sent just before 6 p.m. on June 7, Harmer wrote, “Commissioners,  FYI — as a follow-up to the joint meeting with the City of North Port yesterday the Water Management District wanted to let the County know that it is their official position that their interest in acquiring Orange Hammock includes the ability to surplus a portion of the property.”

Harmer added that SWFWMD “has identified approximately 875 acres” that it is interested in selling as surplus land, if the county and the district are able to acquire the ranch. Of that portion of the property, Harmer noted, approximately 330 acres is “developable uplands.”

SWFWD representatives believe that selling the acreage “will help fund the overall acquisition and also help the City of North Port achieve [its] goal of keeping some of the property on the tax [roll],” he noted.

Because the 875 acres is adjacent to Interstate 75, Harmer continued, SWFWMD representatives “believe that portion of the property would be much more difficult to manage as conservation lands due to the limited ability to conduct prescribed [fires].”

He provided the board members a map from SWFWMD showing the area of the potential surplus land.

A map shows the area of potential surplus lands on the Orange Hammock Ranch property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Harmer concluded his email by noting, “As mentioned [during the joint meeting on June 6], we are currently working with the District on updated appraisals and continued negotiations with the property owner’s representative.”

Carolyn Brown, the director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, told the two boards on June 6 that on the county and SWFWMD offered $18 million March 20 to Dykes Everett & Co. in Orlando — the firm representing the owner of Orange Hammock Ranch. On April 3, she said, Dykes Everett responded with a counter offer of $22 million in cash, with a closing date of Sept. 30.

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

During the June 6 joint session of the North Port and County commissions, Peter Bartolotta, co-founder of the North Port Economic Development Corp. and a past president of that organization, brought up the idea of conserving only part of Orange Hammock Ranch.

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he asked the boards during public comments, if negotiations with the owner of Orange Hammock Ranch could result in 500 of the acres being set aside for commercial use for the City of North Port. “I would challenge the commissions today to come up with a solution … to pursue that additional tax base,” Bartolotta added.

Vice Mayor Vanessa Carusone — who was re-elected to the North Port board in November 2016 — later expressed conflicted feelings over conserving the entire 5,744 acres: “The thought of losing all that commercial base and that taxable value really concerns me.”

“That was the last thing that I expected to hear today,” County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo responded.

County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo. Rachel Hackney photo

The county board would take its direction from the City of North Port, Caragiulo added, though he voiced his desire to see all of the property conserved. Emphasizing that the negotiations over the purchase of the ranch were continuing, Caragiulo asked the North Port commissioners to let the county commissioners know as soon as possible how county staff should proceed.

Ultimately, Mayor Linda Yates and North Port Commissioners Debbie McDowell and Jill Luke agreed with Caragiulo about conserving the entire ranch. However, at Carusone’s suggestion, Yates said the North Port board could schedule a discussion of the issue as part of an upcoming regular meeting or special meeting.

Neither Yates nor Carusone returned calls this week from The Sarasota News Leader. Caragiulo was out of the office until June 19, his assistant told the News Leader.

Josh Taylor, the public information officer for the City of North Port, said in a June 14 telephone interview that he had not found any information indicating the City Commission had set a time for another discussion on Orange Hammock Ranch in the aftermath of the June 6 remarks.

In response to a question from the News Leader, county spokesman Drew Winchester wrote in a June 15 email that Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham “did some outreach to the City of North Port on this issue June 8th and 13th, to share information provided to the [County Commission] by Mr. Harmer, and to set a follow-up meeting. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.”