MANATEE -- Outdoor lovers can expect some pleasant surprises as a bevy of new county park and preserve projects are completed.
Slated to open next month is the 55-acre Conservatory Park in the Palm Aire area. Improvements are expected to be finished at the three-acre Sylvan Oaks Park in Palmetto in the fall. And three new preserves in northwest Bradenton will open during the next couple of years, beginning with the 119-acre Neal Preserve.
Also in the works is the 176-acre Perico Preserve off Manatee Avenue and the 35-acre Ungarelli Preserve at 4000 Palma Sola Blvd., says Max Dersch, the county's division manager for the Department of Natural Resources.
Among the park projects nearest to completion is Conservatory Park, which will open next month, according to Cindy Turner, Manatee County director of parks and recreation.
"It's beautiful," she said, noting that members of the Palm Aire community around it had "a lot of say" in its development.
Once destined to be another Ryland Homes residential tract, the site now is a leafy haven dotted with big trees and meandering woodland trails.
It is located north of University Parkway and west of Whitfield Avenue in a heavily developed suburban area, but the rush of cars and complexities of modern living all fade away in its green embrace.
Among the park's amenities is a 10-acre lake, a fishing pier, restroom/pavilion, observation deck, trails and parking areas.
In 2004, the land was purchased for $3.4 million, with half the money supplied by a Florida Communities Trust grant, with the other half from a local matching arrangement. The county spent another $1.5 million developing the property.
A grand opening will be announced once it is formally complete, said Turner.
Sylvan Oaks Park
Sylvan Oaks Park is a little patch of land of only three or four acres that the county owns on the east side of Lincoln Park in Palmetto.
Community members expressed a need for more amenities at the park, which has swings and a picnic area, but not much else.
Families wanted a bus shelter for their kids and more fun things to do, so the county set out to improve the park's offerings, Turner said.
Plans call for a new bus shelter/pavilion that can accommodate bus riders in the morning and picnickers in the afternoon, officials said.
A new playground will be added and more parking as well, she said.
"It was a grassroots effort," said Turner, who said the re-do is expected to cost about $66,500.
Turner hoped the park, with enhanced landscaping and new facilities, could open by October.
Nearby at Blackstone Park, 2112 14th Ave. W., Palmetto, construction began in March on new Little League ballfields.
The project calls for three new regulation Little League fields, a parking lot, a press box and concession building, bleachers, sidewalks, lighting and associated infrastructure at Blackstone Field, east and north of already existing Blackstone Park softball fields. The county is paying for the $3.3 million project using Parks and Recreation Department impact fees; an $800,000 contribution from the city of Palmetto; and a $75,000 contribution from the Pittsburgh Pirates Foundation. Other donations may be forthcoming from the Tampa Bay Rays and Waste Pro, Inc., both of which are considering requests.
The Little League's former ballfields were eliminated after the city sold the land to the Manatee County School Board for the construction of a new Palmetto Elementary School.
Northwest Bradenton will be blessed with the first of three new preserves when the Pat and Charlene Neal Nature Preserve opens, probably within 18 months, Dersch said.
The oceanfront property facing Anna Maria Sound at 12301 Manatee Ave. W. was acquired by the county for $10 million after developer Pat Neal knocked $7 million off its appraised value as a contribution, Neal said Friday.
The Florida Communities Trust provided a $2.2 million grant and the county matched it to close the sale of the land, said to Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of natural resources.
The county will spend about $1.6 million for recreational amenities and restoration, paid for by grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund; National Recreational Trails; the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Hunsicker.
It will offer "passive recreation" for visitors, who can walk its trails and enjoy the scenery.
Visitors will also be able to hike, bike, kayak, and walk their dogs.
Its amenities will include a trail and boardwalk through wetlands and coastal upland, picnic pavilion and an observation tower.
Nearby, the 176-acre Perico Preserve is under construction at 11700 Manatee Ave. W. It sits across Perico Bayou from the county's popular Robinson Preserve, which already reportedly attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year.
The appraised value for Perico Preserve was $13 million, but the county was able to purchase it for $6 million after resolving a legal dispute with the owner, Hunsicker said. The money came from county funds set aside for conservation lands, he said.
"I think it'll be a birder's destination," said Dersch, who noted that, even though heavy earth-moving equipment is busy there, birds have already discovered its wetlands.
Manatee County attracts birders from all over the world, he added.
When it is finished, the preserve will boast five saltwater marsh wetlands and four freshwater marshes, along with a rookery island in the middle of a 15-acre sea grass basin.
County officials still lack some of the permits required to finish the project, which is at least 18 months from completion, he said.
The Ungarelli Preserve, at 35 acres, is the smallest of the three preserves. It is named after Joseph A. Ungarelli Sr., who died in 2007.
The original cost of the land was $300,000, but the family discounted it as a contribution and the county bought the property for $150,000 instead, Hunsicker said.
Money for the purchase came from grants and funds set aside for environmentally sensitive lands.
It is almost entirely covered by "excellent mangrove habitat," said Dersch, who termed it a wonderful jewel. "It's important for shoreline protection, which is the biggest ecological engine we have."
Tons of trash were removed from the preserve in 2010-11, during the early stages of restoration, said Dersch.
Restoration costs are $428,688, supplied by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and through a variety of local, state and federal grants, said Hunsicker.
The county has already removed much of the non-native vegetation, such as Brazilian pepper and Australian pine.
Newly planted native trees and shrubbery have already been installed on its grounds.
Some of the flora includes South Florida slash pine; long leaf pine and live oak, along with cabbage palm, sea grapes and red mulberry trees, Dersch said.
The preserve will boast a shaded picnic area, boardwalk and kayak launch.
County officials are hoping to find $400,000 in funds for trail and boardwalk connections at the preserve, which has no real amenities just yet, but officials hope to open it in the next year or so.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.