Proposal for new park — and the higher taxes to pay for it — moves to next stage

The final stage is set for commissioners to decide whether to bump up some residents’ property taxes to fund the purchase of a new county park.

The proposed 30-year municipal service taxing unit, or MSTU, would affect 1,440 homeowners in the Braden Woods and River Club subdivisions, levying a tax with an estimated millage rate of 0.53 on properties’ taxable value.

The result would be preserving a 33-acre piece of land where Club House Drive meets Pine Meadow Way, as well as an extra 11 adjacent acres to be donated by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. It has become better known as the Braden River Preserve.

Developer Pat Neal, who owns the 33 acres, set a deadline of March 31 for supporters to seek out how to pay the $3 million price tag. If the new taxing unit is not established, Neal is poised to cluster a 32-home gated community on the property called the Myara subdivision.

During a regular commission meeting Tuesday, the board voted 6-1, with Commissioner Robin DiSabatino dissenting, to hold a public hearing to decide whether to establish a MSTU on March 6 at the Manatee County Administrative Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

Support among residents for the taxing unit came at 46.8 percent, according to a poll sent out by the county, with 21.6 percent not responding. A nonprofit that has been fighting to keep the land as a preserve — Friends of Keep Woods — gathered support from an additional 66 residents after the Jan. 11 deadline and asked they be considered as official, citing lost mail, foreclosed homes and holidays.

Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague said commissioners were not required to send out the poll in the first place, but many governmental entities do so because MSTUs “can be the subject of intense debate.”

Nearly 30 people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, most of them in support of the MSTU.

“One of two things will happen: another development will destroy a habitat in Manatee County, or a jewel in Manatee County will be preserved in posterity,” said Friends of Keep Woods’ president Gary Hebert.

Residents spoke of deer, rabbits, bobcats and baby opposums that call their backyard home, and feared that a development would encroach their habitat. Others talked about how the poll could have been conducted better and combated misinformation that had floated into some mailboxes.

A handful of residents thought the taxing unit’s boundaries were “arbitrary” and did not think funding a park met the threshold of “necessary and essential” things a MSTU is typically established for.

Patricia Petruff, an attorney who often represents developers, said she was retained by the River Club Homeowners Association in December purely for fact-finding.

“Even if you count the substitute poll votes, you’re at a very, very close half-and-half kind of thing here and it’s going to be a difficult decision for you to make,” she said.

Commissioner Betsy Benac said that when she first heard of this proposal — the first time she had ever heard of citizens stepping up to buy land that would otherwise be developed — she had a “visceral” reaction that the property owner had the land rights, not a group of citizens.

“I was really quite thrilled to see this come forward,” she said.

Addressing concerns that she may not have been impartial, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said that she had donated money to the nonprofit when it first came about so that “as many people in these neighborhoods knew what was going on and why and were able to voice their opinion.”

Hebert, the nonprofit’s president, was ever hopeful of the decision to move forward.

“Obviously we’re pretty pleased that the board almost unanimously agreed to move forward and we’re very hopeful given all the testimony today that we will prevail in the end and that we will have a Braden River Preserve,” he said.

In other business, commissioners approved replacing “Oneco” on Interstate 75 signs at exit 217 with “Manatee Technical College.”

“It’s important that we be familiar with this community,” said MTC Director Valerie Viands.

Commissioner Charles Smith, who said he was concerned about removing Oneco from the Florida Department of Transportation sign, asked that the county put up a sign near Oneco to designate it.

Covering up and replacing destinations on the I-75 sign would cost FDOT $6,500.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse