Diana Bergstresser remembers spending every summer break out along the Braden River. She, along with her brothers, would camp all summer long on her family’s property off Linger Lodge Road.
“I can’t tell you how many times I walked down this path,” the 56-year-old Myakka City resident said as she stood outside the property’s locked gate, pointing to where she used to pick blackberries.
But for the past year, Bergstresser and her twin brother Phil have not been allowed on what has been their family’s land for almost 100 years. The siblings had to get a court order to spread their brother’s ashes last summer on the property.
“We can’t go out there and go lay on the ground and cry,” Diana Bergstresser said. “We can’t grieve, and that’s our home. People say you can’t be one with the land. That’s not true. You become the land. It’s something good that needs to be continued for future generations, and that’s the bottom line of this.”
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After their older brother, Carl, died from pancreatic cancer last July, the siblings were barred from the property until a court decides who inherits the 12 acres near the Braden Woods subdivision: the family, or individuals affiliated with Keep Woods, a nonprofit working to preserve an adjacent 33 acres that also once belonged to the Bergstresser family.
In Carl’s will, which was signed only 10 days before his death, it states that his property be used for conservation purposes by a non-profit or other agency, attorneys say. But Phil and Diana Bergstresser argue that this was not their brother’s wishes. Although they acknowledge they were in the room when the will was read, they say it was not read verbatim to Carl by his personal representatives, and that it was read to him when he was on pain medications.
We can’t go out there and go lay on the ground and cry.
Diana Bergstresser, Myakka City resident
The adjacent 33 acres to Carl’s property is what fueled the nonprofit Keep Woods to form in 2016 in opposition to developer Pat Neal’s proposed infill development, which calls for up to 32 homes on the north bank of the Braden River east of Interstate 75. Carl Bergstresser was one of the early members of the Keep Woods group. Two other Keep Woods members — Phil St. John and Brenda Russell — are the two witnesses on the will.
“We are so focused on fulfilling what Carl wanted to do with his property,” St. John, who is also one of Carl’s personal representatives, said Friday. “This property meant everything to him and the wildlife on it. His goal and his will and his wishes were to preserve his property for the wildlife and donate it to an agency that will protect it forever. I believe we are doing everything possible to see that true on what Carl wanted.”
Preserving the land
When he was alive, Carl Bergstresser worked on the effort to preserve the larger parcel from development. But his siblings say his brother’s wishes for the smaller parcel aren’t being carried out, and that the property is being used to further the Keep Woods’ conservation efforts for the adjacent property.
“These people haven’t carried out the wishes for my brother, but carried out their wishes for what the property should be,” Diana Bergstresser said. “My brother helped start Keep Woods. His agenda ended when he died.”
But St. John said they are not using his death and property to further the Keep Woods efforts — rather, he said, “the opposite.”
“I think his donation was done to help that effort to preserve the adjoining property,” he said. “Carl knew what he was doing and what he wanted to do.”
Bradley Magee, a local attorney who worked on Carl Bergstresser’s will, said last August that Carl’s wishes for the 12 acres was for it “to be transferred to a nonprofit organization or government entity that will maintain such property for wildlife conservation and general conservation purposes,” as detailed in the will.
“This was his wish that he told me,” Magee said. “He loved wildlife very much and loved that property very much. It will be our job to pick a nonprofit or government entity that will properly preserve this property.”
On Friday, Magee reiterated that Carl’s wishes are being carried out.
“They’re wrong,” Magee said. “His wishes are being met.”
But Diana Bergstresser says her brother wanted to keep the property the way it is — for wildlife preservation, and not for foot traffic and walking paths.
“Now that’s threatened because Keep Woods, we feel, is serving their own agenda since day one,” she said. “It’s a piece of heaven and it’s threatened.”
Court hearing set
A court hearing is scheduled in August to determine who inherits the property. In the meantime, the Keep Woods group is continuing to work to preserve the adjacent 33 acres from a proposed subdivision. The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast recently joined forces with the residents by helping collect donations to preserve all of the property — including the Bergstresser property.
“Almost 12 acres of this natural area will be protected this summer when Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast receives the donation of a perpetual conservation easement on the land,” according to the organization’s website on a page titled Braden River Preserve. “This will ensure that the property, the former home of the late Carl Bergstresser, will remain in its natural condition and limit development to the current homestead area. This opens the door to create a natural area park on the 44 acres along the Braden River. Conservation Foundation is in negotiations with the current owner of the remaining 33 acres.”
Since all the points have been negotiated, the closing with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast should be in a couple weeks, Magee said Friday.
“After a tremendous amount of effort, we’ve found a nonprofit to take it,” he said.
Christine P. Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, confirmed Friday that “that’s going to happen” with Bergstresser property.
“There isn’t a place that is natural, undeveloped like these combined almost 44 acres,” Johnson said. “The long-term strategy — and we are talking years for the 44 acres — is to be able to open to the public with walking trails for people to be able to enjoy nature in an area where it doesn’t exist.”
Diana Bergstresser questioned how the foundation could make such conclusive statements about her family’s land.
“How can they print that legally when there isn’t even been a hearing on it to decide it?” she asked. “They are so confident in what they are doing.”
Preserved for a century
The Bergstressers’ grandparents built the original Linger Lodge. It opened in 1946 and the family operated it for 19 years, according to grandma Nina Rebecca Parvin’s 2002 obituary.
The late Carl Bergstresser’s 12 acres in ownership limbo was part of the original tract for Linger Lodge.
On a recent morning, Diana and Phil Bergstresser sat at a picnic table at Linger Lodge, flipping through a red photo album of family photos.
“It is very important to us,” Diana Bergstresser said. “It is where we grew up. We’d like to see property preserved, and we feel we are the best ones to do it, being as our family were stewards of the land for almost 100 years. It’s our homestead. No one is going to preserve that land for the animals better than we have preserved for the last 100 years.”
Their father bought the property from the grandparents, and in 1976 when their father passed away, the property went to the Bergstresser children. Last April, Carl Bergstresser said he had owned the 12 acres for more than 30 years.
At the Aug. 4 court hearing, Diana and Phil Bergstresser say they are hoping to get justice for Carl and to begin the healing process.
“That’s why we are doing it, because he would do it for us and because it’s the right thing to do,” Diana Bergstresser said. “Our conversation always consisted that he wanted land in preservation of wildlife. They have conservation to a state agency, which wasn’t his words at all. All the witnesses to the will are Keep Woods people. This hasn’t been about my brother’s wishes. This has been about Keep Woods.”
Phil Bergstresser added: “It could have been avoided if they hadn’t locked us out at the beginning, and we could have worked it out between us.”
The Bergstresser twins say they weren’t allowed to be with Carl on the night he died. But they say they can restore their rightful ownership to the family’s property.
“That’s why we’re fighting,” Diana Bergstresser said. “Some things you can live with and some things you can’t. ... We’ve preserved for almost 100 years. How can you question what we want to do with it?”
This report was updated at 9 a.m. Monday to clarify the Bergstressers’ court order.