TERRA CEIA -- What was once a land of failed subdivisions and invasive pepper fields is now 843 acres of restored habitat at Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.
The project is the largest ecosystem restoration project completed in Tampa Bay, and public officials celebrated the first phase completion on Monday.
So far, 843 acres of the 1,800-acre Terra Ceia Isles tract have been restored as part of the $7.5 million first phase. In all, the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve is about 22,000 acres.
As part of the celebration, Ed and Gail Straight of Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation on Bradenton Beach released rescued screech and barred owls and a wood stork.
"The wetland restoration of this magnitude is truly special for those
of us who live here and who love the natural beauty of this area," Manatee County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said as mullet jumped out of the man-made lake behind him. "Wetlands not only improve that natural beauty, but are also a natural filter system for this environment and help improve the water quality of our pristine bays."
The land was co-acquired by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for $1.5 million in 1995, which is included in the first phase price. Of that, 117 acres include freshwater and estuarine habitats and 726 are coastal upland habitats.
"I have to congratulate the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which partnered with DEP and others to get this land back into public ownership, which is very much a focus of the department right now," said Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration for DEP. "And to make sure we get the right land that protects our aquatic resources."
One area once featured rows for farming gladiolus and Brazilian peppers, prompting crews to plug about 30 artesian wells used in the farming operations, straddling Interstate 275, U.S. 41 and Tampa Bay. Other areas were once struggling housing developments that never got off the ground, prompting the state to buy the land at a foreclosure auction in 1995. After the water district paid $1.5 million for the property, DEP acquired it for $750,000 in 1998.
"When we got the land, it needed some fixin'," Bartlett said.
The land is now a network of trails, wetlands, bird habitats, native palms and mangroves and contains more than 75 unmarked heritage sites where visitors could stumble upon Indian mounds and fossil sites.
County Commissioner John Chappie was impressed with how much was fixed.
"Anything we can do as a community for restoration of the ecosystem, especially in coastal communities, is so important," Chappie said. "We build on what we have. Whether it is SWFMD, DEP, or the county, it's a great reflection of the type of environmentally conscious community that goes above and beyond to protect our coastal community."
Carlos Beruff, president of homebuilder Medallion Home and SWFMD's governing board chair, celebrated the nature preserve that was once abandoned homes and overgrown weeds. The district has impacted about 4,000 acres and created about 38,000 acres of public land through its land management practices, and sold surplus lands to help fund restoration projects like the one in Terra Ceia, he said.
"Over time, part of the mission of the district is to take those truly surplus properties and put them back into the taxpaying economy, and taking those dollars and segregating these type of properties, which are really important to the ecosystem," Beruff said.
In 2012, the district was approached by developers, Slip Knott LLC, to swap 77 acres of state land for 663 acres of Rattlesnake Key and submerged lands called the Knott-Cowen Tract for a resort called Skyway Preserve, but that deal died. The state also listed 13 acres of the Terra Ceia Preserve on a surplus sale list in 2013, but that was also removed.
Work began in 2002 on eight smaller phases through 2013 to make up the first phase of the overall project.
"It's all been removed, leveled out and it's all been replanted with native fauna," said Kevin Kiser, Terra Ceia Preserve State Park manager.
Phase I is really never complete. Controlled burns are needed to maintain the forestry, and park officials continue to weed out invasive species that creep up.
"It's going to always need maintenance because those exotics are near impossible to be eradicated," Kiser said.
The water district is requesting $4.75 million from the state for a second phase of the project and continues to estimate the cost of the project. The second phase will include restoring 233 acres of upland and wetland habitats inside a 408-acre tract.
Freshwater and tidal wetlands habitats were also created and, in some cases, switched to stop the agricultural runoff from the property.
"Some of them were saltwater and now they're freshwater because when agriculture was going on here, they dug ditches to drain the property," Kiser said. "So what we wanted to do was to cut the ditch blocks off to create more freshwater recharge areas so that water would not run out into the bay."
The entire park, which lacks facilities, is open to the public, and by foot only, Kiser said. Cars can park outside as long as they don't obstruct the gates, he said, and at a historic Bishop Harbor boat ramp.
The water district oversaw parts of the project through its Surface Water Improvement Management Program, with which DEP manages the park and helps oversees the controlled burns.
More work still needs to be done. Permits are being processed to install permanent boat ramps at Bishop Harbor, off of Moccasin Wallow Road and the historic 1905 Haley Mansion continues to be renovated, though no state funding was granted this year to continue the mansion restoration efforts, Kiser said.
"The inside still needs lots of help," Kiser said.
While the mansion serves as offices for several state departments and is not open to the public, some officials envision it to double as a visitors' center one day for the park.
"It's a possibility. We don't have a slated use for it as yet," Kiser said. "Right now it's just office space until we get our shop facilities built."
State agencies have not approached Manatee County for funding to help with additional phases for the mansion restoration, according to officials from both the water district and DEP.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.
--Sara Kennedy, government reporter, contributed to this report.