All residents, not just its neighbors, will pay for new East Manatee park

The 1,440 residents surrounding a 33-acre piece of undeveloped property in East Manatee will not have to pay an extra tax to buy land for a new park. But the land dubbed the “Braden River Preserve” will be put into conservation anyway.

Manatee County commissioners voted 4-3 not to establish a municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU, and instead accept a donation from the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast of more than $1 million — and have the county pay the rest of the $3 million cost.

Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Betsy Benac, Charles Smith and Priscilla Trace voted in favor. Commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Stephen Jonsson and Carol Whitmore voted against.

The 33 acres is being offered by Myarra Property Joint Venture LLC, owned by developer Pat Neal and his son John, to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. The foundation will then transmit it to the county, which will be charged with developing the passive park for an estimated $300,000 and maintaining it for $20,000 a year.

Ever since there has been a plan to develop the land, which sits at the intersection of Pine Meadow Way and Club House Drive, nonprofit Friends of Keep Woods has fought to find a way to conserve the land. Members say that preserving the land, which sits just north of the Braden River, will protect wildlife and continue flood protection.

The Conservation Foundation, which had until March 31 to accept the offer of the land from a developer, raised $1,029,645 to offset the cost to taxpayers. The rest of the funds will come through an interfund loan from the already-established countywide unincorporated MSTU, which county financial director Jan Brewer said has nearly $14 million in the fund. This does not include residents in the cities of Palmetto or Bradenton.

The decision at stake was whether to approve an MSTU to the 1,440 residents in Braden Woods and River Club neighborhoods. Nearly 50 residents sat in the commission chambers, either wearing red in opposition or white in support, but it was hardly the crowd at the March 6 meeting.

Yet Benac had a third option: that the county pay for the land and therefore have more time to raise donations. Commissioners will figure out exactly where the rest of the funds will come from during budget discussions in June.

Baugh, who represents the area around the preserve, supported the motion, but the idea was met with severe backlash from Whitmore, Jonsson, DiSabatino and Smith. And Whitmore still supported creation of the MSTU.

The opposing commissioners said the county is projected to be at an $8.5 million shortfall in 2020 and that if they approve this, it would set a precedent for citizens to “hold the county hostage,” as DiSabatino put it, to buy smaller parcels of land for conservation. She cited one instance with calls for land near Evers Reservoir to be turned into a park instead of being developed.

“This is like the ninth inning and you’re calling in a new pitcher, catcher, the whole team,” DiSabatino said. “I don’t think it’s a solution.”

Benac added that whether they approve the MSTU or have the county buy the land, the county is still responsible to pay the $3 million upfront with an interfund loan.

After the vote, Trace asked those who initially supported the MSTU to continue contributing donations to the preserve purchase.

“To be honest, we don’t really have the money. Fourteen million dollars in the county doesn’t go far,” she said. “Y’all need to step up.”

The River Club Homeowners’ Association sued the county last week to seek input from a judge on whether the county is legally allowed to establish a MSTU for a land purchase, which they say has never been done before in the state of Florida. Now that the county will pay for the property, the lawsuit is moot.

Eric Appleton, an attorney with Tampa-based law firm Bush Ross that was retained by the homeowners’ association, said the association’s board is “pleased” with the outcome.

Friends of Keep Woods president Gary Hebert said the motion came as a “surprise,” but the two-year fight to protect the land has come to an end.

“Not only was it a surprise that (Benac) made that motion, it was a surprise that the majority of them wanted it,” he said.

Conservation Foundation president Christine Johnson said in a statement that they were “overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support” and thanked the commissioners for “considering a different approach to land conservation.”

Friends of Keep Woods’ “hard work activating the neighbors who cared to save this special piece of ‘Old Florida’ is a beacon to others,” Johnson said.

Strained history

In November 2016, Neal Communities had a contract to buy the land from Albert Myara. But developer Pat Neal ran into a deadline after the county denied the project for lacking a proposed thoroughfare between Linger Lodge Road and Club House Drive, and the project was scrapped.

A month later, Myarra Property Joint Venture LLC, owned by Pat Neal and his son John, bought the property for $1.6 million. By February 2017, they were in the process of resubmitting a comprehensive plan amendment for the roadway.

Neal asked county commissioners six months later to eliminate the extension because of an agreement with the Conservation Foundation – if the Linger Lodge Road extension was not included in the development proposal, the foundation would agree to the option to buy the land for a future preserve for $3 million. The appeal was narrowly approved.

Myarra Property Joint Venture also said they would make a $350,000 contribution to the Conservation Foundation’s land stewardship work, which foundation president Johnson said would be used to keep the land in conservation forever, whether it’s used toward insurance, paying for staff to monitor the land or legal fights.

In October, the county sent out postcard polls with each homeowner’s estimated tax estimate to gather input from the 1,440 residents who were within the proposed boundaries of the MSTU. By the final deadline, 46.8 percent had expressed support for the idea.

Opponents believed that was a clear sign to forgo consideration of the taxing unit, but supporters collected an additional 66 notarized substitute polls to push them past the 50 percent threshold that would indicate to county staff to bring the proposal before the board. Supporters say they did this because there were new homeowners who may not have known about the poll, some homes were vacant or others had not received a poll. Baugh made the call to put the item on the Jan. 23 meeting agenda for discussion.

As the county was in the midst of gathering public input on the MSTU, Neal obtained approval to rezone the property in case the agreement to fund the purchase with a combination of donations and the taxing unit was not met by March 31.

On March 6, commissioners listened to a divisive public for nearly five hours before continuing the meeting to the last possible moment. Opponents of the MSTU wore red, while supporters wore white with a poster advertising the Braden River Preserve.

Some residents expressed frustration about how the polling process worked, how the MSTU borders were decided and why they couldn’t opt out of the tax, which would last for 30 years. Others were concerned that they would be paying for a preserve that the entire county could benefit from and therefore would bring unwanted company.

The Conservation Foundation also acquired an adjacent 11.6 acres which will be added to the 33 acres and kept in conservation in perpetuity.

Deputy County Administrator Dan Schlandt had noted that public works employee Sherri Robinson had unexpectedly died last week. Robinson was an “integral part of this team,” Schlandt said, working to organize the postcard polls during the MSTU process.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse