In less than two weeks, the Manatee County Commission will decide whether to tax 1,440 residents to buy land that could become the Braden River Preserve. To help offset the cost to the chosen residents of Braden Woods and River Club, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast announced it has set a $1 million fundraising goal.
After hours of public comment that pitted neighbor against neighbor on Tuesday, commissioners decided to hold off a vote on the municipal services taxing unit to see if there were any last minute fundraising opportunities. Developer Pat Neal, who intends to cluster 32 homes on the 33-acre plot of land at the intersection of Pine Meadow Way and Club House Drive, offered up the property for $3 million, but the offer expires March 31.
The foundation, which is facilitating the transaction, also has acquired 11 acres adjacent to the property for conservation. If the MSTU is passed, the preserve would be 44 acres total.
At the meeting, Commission Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace didn’t seem too impressed that the Manatee Fish and Game Association had made the only sizable contribution to the foundation, $25,000. Supporters of the MSTU, which would last for 30 years, want to protect the land from development. Opponents say they think the boundary of the MSTU is “arbitrary” and unfairly makes River Club residents pay more for a preserve they may not want.
Since the contentious meeting, the Conservation Foundation has put out the call to raise at least one-third of its cost before the final decision day on March 20. The Sarasota-based Floyd C. Johnson and Flo Singer Johnson Foundation has pledged a $500,000 challenge grant and the funds are now nudging toward $700,000.
“This is a rare opportunity to save 34 acres of old Florida on the Braden River from development,” Conservation Foundation president Christine Johnson said.
Some residents within the proposed MSTU boundary still feel like it would be difficult to change their minds, if at all.
Sanctuary resident Marian Lucia said she would like the foundation to raise as much money as it could, as it would “certainly help minimize the impact,” but said that she and many other residents in the southern portion of the boundary were fervently against the tax because their property values were higher.
“If a large amount of money is raised, the county should rethink their position” and find the money elsewhere without taxing homeowners, she said.
“I don’t see this as conservation,” she added. “I see it as a tax.”
Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker said during the Tuesday meeting that the land didn’t fit the criteria that would allow them to seek grants for its purchase. If it was critical, Lucia said, “the county should never have approved the development.”
Jim Nestle, who lives in River Club North, said he believes that taxing 1,440 residents “for a low priority park that will be accessible by the entire public shouldn’t happen.”
He added that whatever money the foundation raises wouldn’t change his mind, and believes the county should use resources to pay for better security in schools.
“I think that’s money well spent,” he said.