Southwest Florida Water Management District lists almost 1,400 acres as surplus to sell

skennedy@bradenton.comSeptember 14, 2013 

MANATEE -- Almost 1,400 acres of public land overseen by the Southwest Florida Water Management District has been listed as "surplus," with plans to sell it in order to buy more valuable new acquisitions, officials said Friday.

Six acres at Manatee County's Frog Creek were among the parcels controlled by the water management district that have been declared surplus, according to a list provided by SWFMUD officials.

The parcel at the intersection of I-275 and U.S. Hwy. 41 is a portion of a larger, 127-acre site the water district bought with state "Florida Forever" conservation funds, with the intention of restoration, said Joseph Quinn, district land management section manager for the water management district.

"We purchased the property, intending to restore the system and improving water quality in the Tampa Bay area," said Quinn. Although the district bought the whole property, the six-acre parcel in question was not specifically where officials sought to focus, he said.

The state's other water management districts are also reviewing their public

lands in order to ferret out suitable parcels for sale, said Quinn.

The process left a local official wondering why he was not given the opportunity to comment on the water agency's plans.

"In general, the district's decision to surplus minor parcels to gain revenue for acquisition of more ecologically-valuable parcels can be a sound management tool if input from local district employees, who best know the property's values, are taken into consideration," said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County's director of natural resources.

"A better alternative to any surplus move is to work with our state legislators to reinstate full funding for district land acquisition and management programs, which have done an excellent job in protecting our important surface and groundwater resources," he said.

He noted the water management district's process "seems to parallel" the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's method.

Last week, the DEP was fending off objections from officials in various counties, whose park and preserve lands adorned a controversial preliminary list of more than 5,300 acres of public land across Florida under consideration as surplus to finance more valuable new acquisitions.

Among the critics were some in Manatee County, where 13.1 acres of the Terra Ceia Preserve, and 19.4 acres at Lake Manatee State Park were listed as possible surplus parcels, the Herald previously reported.

Since then, the Terra Ceia Preserve property has been removed from the list, but the Lake Manatee State Park acreage still remained late Friday, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection website.

The DEP's conservation land assessment process and those of the water management districts are separate, according to Patrick Gillespie, the DEP's press secretary.

The department's function, per the Florida Legislature's budget language, was to determine what land may no longer be needed for conservation purposes in order to buy even more valuable conservation land to purchase, he said, adding, "All proceeds go into buying more valuable conservation land."

The vast majority of Manatee's Frog Creek tract is comprised of borrow pits, said Quinn.

"Prior to the District's acquisition, the upland portions of this property were used for cattle grazing," said a SWFMUD website.

"Former borrow pits used during construction of I-275 formed the four large man-made lakes that occupy the property."

"The natural areas fall into the mesic temperate hammock type, with dominant plant species consisting of live oak, laurel oak and cabbage palms," the website said, adding that such areas provide shade needed by wildlife on open grassy plains.

"Mesic temperate hammocks are important habitat for wildlife, and provide secondary habitat for a number of rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species," the website said.

Restoration is moving forward, "but we haven't turned any dirt," Quinn said, adding, "It really wouldn't be a problem to surplus that, and complete the restoration of the rest."

A notation on the agency's list said its staff was "preparing to file a Future Land Use Change with Manatee County."

When the agency purchased the property, its land-use designation had been "mixed-use," but Manatee County officials decided that, since it was publicly-owned, its land-use designation should be changed to "conservation," said Quinn.

"So, what we're simply doing is going back through, and saying, 'We need to change it back to mixed-use,'" Quinn said.

No application for a land-use change has been submitted to date, said Kathleen L. Thompson, planning manager for Manatee County Building & Development Services Department.

Quinn said the water management district had held public hearings on the surplus land issue, one of which took place in Sarasota.

"Definitely, we were very transparent as we went through," he said.

Other properties listed on SWFMUD's surplus acreage list include 887 acres in Polk County, and 110 acres in Pasco County, according to water district's list.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7037. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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