The fate of Braden River Preserve will be delayed to a last-minute decision.
After years of gathering support, months of poll collecting, weeks of outcry about a proposed municipal services taxing unit and hours of discussion and public comment Tuesday, Manatee County commissioners voted to continue the meeting to March 20, 11 days before a deal to buy 33 acres in East Manatee expires.
In a five-hour, often contentious meeting, Manatee County commissioners voted 5 to 2 for the continuance, with Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace and Commissioner Robin DiSabatino dissenting.
The overflowed commission chambers looked like a candy cane: opponents of the MSTU wore red, while supporters put on white shirts and a Braden River Preserve poster that dangled from their necks by a green ribbon. Nearly 50 people spoke, with 20 people in clear opposition.
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Opponents generally felt as though the MSTU borders were drawn arbitrarily and thought that the 46.8 percent result from the polling process was clear. Others believed a passive park could become a “haven for teenagers” (as resident Renee Snyder put it) or a magnet for the homeless. Some just didn’t want the preserve, MSTU or not.
“There is no specific benefit I am getting for what I’m paying for,” said one resident. “This is not a fair tax by any means.”
Another resident, Beth Barnett, said she did not want to pay an estimated $10,000 for “something I will never use.” She added that she would continue to use parks in nearby Lakewood Ranch, which the district’s commissioner Vanessa Baugh pointed out was paid for by Lakewood Ranch residents.
“A lot of you come in and use (the parks). We don’t have an issue with that. We’re a community. We all stand together,” Baugh said. Commissioner Charles Smith chimed in that he wished his district, which includes parts of Palmetto and Bradenton, had this problem.
The key message from supporters of the MSTU, as told by Friends of Keep Woods president Gary Hebert, said they wanted to protect the Braden River, keep the flood protection that the site gives and save natural habitat.
For more than two years, Braden Woods residents who lived near the proposed 33-acre, 32-home gated community to be named Myara were afraid that the development would destroy a pristine piece of woods — one of the reasons many of them came to the area. This idea transformed into a group called Friends of Keep Woods, who wanted to place a tax on themselves and their neighbors, 1,440 in all, to buy the land from developer Pat Neal.
The agreed upon purchase price is $3 million, to be facilitated by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which has only raised $28,000 to put toward the effort. Neal’s offer expires March 31.
DiSabatino thought it would set a precedent for other residents (or other counties) to want to set up their own park and have the county pay for setting up and maintaining the park. Trace was concerned that the Conservation Foundation had not found any “big hitters” to take down the price.
“I have a hard time taxing someone when I’m not actually taxing myself,” Trace said.
Commissioner Betsy Benac, who repeatedly said that the opportunity to save the wooded area was “unique,” made the motion so that they could find any other funding sources.
“Maybe there’s a sugar daddy out there that wants to write a big check,” Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said.
The MSTU would be in place for 30 years for these residents, and the millage rate estimated at 0.53 would be set each year depending on the need. The funds would go toward buying the 33 acres, which would become one with an adjacent 11 acres also acquired by the Conservation Foundation, for a total of a 44-acre preserve.