Work proceeding to expand public access to natural lands that Sarasota County owns

Commission gets update from director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources

This map shows the county-owned lands that have been preserved. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On a number of occasions — especially during his last two years on the board — Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio took the opportunity to point out that about one-third of all the land in the county had been preserved in perpetuity.

During a Nov. 28 presentation to the current commissioners, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), said that approximately 126,000 acres are protected, either through county purchases or private initiatives. “That is the infamous 33 —almost 34% — of Sarasota County being protected,” she added, referencing Maio’s past statements.

Moreover, she continued, more than 96,000 acres — 96,094, as of that date — are preserves, reserves, state parks or other natural areas, and 39 of the 46 sites offer public access. Six of the remaining seven are the focus of planning for future access, Rissler noted. The seventh will have to remain out of public reach, she explained, because of the necessity of protecting the environmentally sensitive areas it includes.

County staff has worked through two voter-approved initiatives — the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program (NPP) — to ensure that the lands will remain undeveloped, she reminded the board members. The ESLPP originally won citizens’ support during a 1999 referendum, she pointed out. Renewal of that program through a second referendum, conducted in 2005, gave county staff the right to use part of the funds to purchase new land for parks, as well, she also reminded the commissioners. (Voters agreed to pay an annual tax of 0.25 mills to support the original program; that figure has remained unchanged.)

Further, Rissler reminded the commissioners on Nov. 28, they agreed to holding a third referendum in 2026, before the ESLPP/NPP programs expire in 2029, with the hope that citizens will support renewal of the property tax.

Along with the acquisition endeavors, Rissler continued, the county has “had significant commitment to public access and the use of these lands.”

A staff report related completed in early September, in conjunction with the inclusion of the topic in the commission’s 2023 Strategic Plan, says, “Sarasota County has acquired approximately 40,000 acres of environmental lands through ESLPP, including approximately 21,500 acres protected through conservation easements …” The natural areas vary in size from 0.3 to more than 24,000 acres, the report adds.

Chair Ron Cutsinger proposed that the access issue be part of the 2023 Strategic Plan, he acknowledged.

“Sarasota County has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, and NorthStar Contracting Group, Inc. to assist with ESLPP and NPP acquisitions,” the staff report further notes.

State-owned lands enhance the county’s outdoor recreational opportunities, Rissler also pointed out. For example, she said, the Florida Park Service owns the 24,000-acre Myakka River State Park, whose entrance is in the eastern part of the county, and the 1,494-acre Oscar Scherer State Park near Osprey and Venice.

She noted that the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) owns the 3,963-acre Myakka River Schewe Tract in South County, through which one of the connectors from The Legacy Trail to North Port runs.

Rissler then talked about the fact that a person can get into a canoe at Myakka River State Park and head to Snook Haven and Senator Bob Johnson’s Landing before completing the trip at the Myakka State Forest. “To me,” she said, “that would be an incredible experience for people to have.”

This is one of Nicole Rissler’s slides for her Nov. 28 presentation. Image courtesy Sarasota County

She noted that the property that became Senator Bob Johnson’s Landing was acquired through the NPP. That natural area, Rissler added, “provides incredible views of the Myakka River and is conveniently located along U.S. 41.” Opened in 2019, it has a canoe and kayak launch, restrooms, trails and picnic areas, she said.

It is one of the more recently completed facilities with access to natural lands, Rissler pointed out.

Senator Bob Johnson’s Landing is located at 9083 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice, as the county website notes.

A second area that underwent a recent upgrade, she continued, was Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch, which comprises 82 acres. A new restroom facility and parking were added in 2022, Rissler said, with the potential that more improvements could be tackled in the future.

Then she told the commissioners, “I don’t know that there’s any better example of increased public access and connectivity than our hugely successful Legacy Trail extension project.” Not only did that feature the connections, she pointed out, but three community parks also were created that double as trailheads. She called those facilities “one of the biggest successes of that project.”

“ ‘Under-promising and over-delivering,’ ” Rissler continued, “should be the tagline for [the extensions of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota and North Port].”

“Thousands and thousands of people,” she noted, use The Legacy Trail every day, as documented by the nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail.

Projects underway and for the future

Rissler also talked about two projects underway. One of them focuses on Red Bug Slough Preserve in Sarasota.

“It’s almost done,” she told the commissioners. A celebration is planned for Jan. 24, she added.

“I love this preserve,” Rissler continued. “It is like the perfect little opportunity for people to get out and see nature,” even though it is in an urban environment.

Many people are unable to travel to the larger preserves, such as Deer Prairie Creek, she noted. New trails, a fishing pier and “a beautiful new playground” will entice people to visit Red Bug Slough, Rissler said.

Improvements also are ongoing at the Scherer Thaxton Preserve (13125 Honore Ave. in Osprey), with a celebration planned later this month, she noted.

Restrooms, an accessible fishing pier, a pavilion, a new canoe/kayak launch and an enhanced parking lot are the features that will be unveiled, Rissler said.

A third project focuses on Snook Haven Park and Riverfront Restaurant, which stands at 5000 E. Venice Ave., with design and permitting work proceeding.

This slide shows concepts for the Snook Haven improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among future initiatives, she continued, will be improvements for Old Miakka Preserve (251 Old Miakka Road in Sarasota). Thanks to the ESLPP, she pointed out, “We have made multiple purchases to add to what is going to be this beautiful, continuous preserve.”

“Very soon,” she added, she would be back before the board members to seek their approval for a concept plan for that project, which includes construction of a restroom facility, a pavilion, a fire ring and a playground.

Yet another future project will focus on Walton Ranch, Rissler said. It “will be a destination natural area for horseback riding and other nature-based recreational activities.”

She also talked about the fact that staff believes more can be done to improve public access at Deer Prairie Creek Preserve in South County. “It really is a gateway to thousands of acres of other natural areas.” Among potential enhancements, Rissler continued, are the addition of a campground and equestrian facilities.

Finally, Rissler talked about the efforts of staff to market and promote the county’s natural areas to residents and visitors. She showed the board members slides depicting documents that the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff has worked on with Visit Sarasota County, which is the county’s tourism office, and the county’s Communications Department.

“I think we’re doing a really good job of inventory [of natural lands],” she said. Yet, accessibility is a moot concept if people are unaware of their options.

At the completion of her presentation, Commissioner Michael Moran talked about the fact that he is the most senior commissioner on the board, having won his first term in November 2016. “I’ve had the honor to be involved with almost all of those things, I believe,” he added, referencing Rissler’s slides. “Walking down that ‘memory lane’ was awesome.”

Moran commended Rissler for her leadership of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, including her efforts that led to the completion of the flat extensions of The Legacy Trail 851 days ahead of the original schedule.

Commissioner Neil Rainford added, “We have just an immense opportunity in Sarasota to get out in nature … I don’t think a lot of people even recognize the opportunities we have here …”
Rainford thanked Rissler and her team.

Chair Cutsinger kidded Risser, “You had way too much fun with that presentation.”

“Absolutely,” she responded.

“Every time I see this,” Cutsinger continued, “it just gives me a lot of joy … at the incredible way that this county has preserved lands” and provided access to them.

He did encourage Rissler and her staff to look for more opportunities to purchase waterfront lands.