PALM-AIRE — Neighbors in the Palm-Aire and University Pines neighborhoods have always been protective of the richly wooded area called The Conservatory with its shaded trails running under canopies of moss-draped oaks and mature pines.
When Manatee County bought 55 acres of it in 2004 from developer Ryland Homes, neighbors were happy that one of the few remaining natural areas north of University Parkway between U.S. 301 and Interstate 75 would remain a green oasis.
They were hopeful that the area would stay natural and passive, a buffer against stress and development, with a lovely 10-acre lake at its heart.
But recently, the county started work on a $76,000 project to install a six-foot-tall black chain-link fence to separate residences from the public land.
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Several residents in the 8000 blocks of Conservatory Drive and Conservatory Circle recently filed suit in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, seeking damages in excess of $15,000 and asking to have the fence removed.
Despite the filing of the lawsuit, workers were on site Wednesday, continuing with construction of the fence, set back one-foot from the property line, but only a scant 10 yards or so from the backyards of homes.
John Bartley, who filed the suit along with neighbors Laura Brunson and John Klosner, said the chain-link fence violates the county’s own development code, which specifies screening buffers or decorative or opaque fences. In addition, the fence mars the view from residences and hurts property values, he said.
Residents would prefer no fence at, and note that areas of the park that border undeveloped land will have no fence.
Mike Sosadeeter, a county project manager, said that the county used a $1.7 million Florida Communities Trust grant to acquire the property, and that a fence was specified in the property management plan approved by the state.
Cindy Turner, Manatee Parks and Recreation Department director, said the chain-link fence does meet the county’s development code, and the black color was selected so that the fence would blend into the scenery.
Throughout the process, the county has worked with neighbors and sought their input into development of the park, she said, adding that more residents asked for the fence than opposed it.
Sosadeeter said the state requires the county to manage the property, and the fence will keep park patrons from wandering into someone’s yard, and will identify where park property starts and ends.
Over the years, some neighbors have mowed across the property line, or planted in The Conservatory area. A fence will help prevent that, Sosadeeter said.
The county will be responsible for removing exotic plants and animals from the property, including Brazilian pepper, and plants normally found only in domestic landscaping, Sosadeeter said.
Bartley said The Conservatory has always been natural, and residents are trying to get the county to put a natural barrier between the park and the neighborhood.
Jim Minix, chief deputy county attorney, said he was just served with the lawsuit Tuesday.
He said he had no other comment now, but would have to file an answer or motion in due course.
Eventually, the park is expected to have picnic areas, a boat launch, boardwalk and observation deck for that postcard-like view of the lake.
But Bartley said so far, the lawsuit has changed nothing.
“The only response I’ve gotten is that they continued with the fence,” Bartley said Wednesday.