Residents, Manatee County Commission oppose proposed sale of Pine Island

At the State Road 64 boat ramp on Braden River, Pine Island Preserve sits in the middle.
At the State Road 64 boat ramp on Braden River, Pine Island Preserve sits in the middle.

SARASOTA -- Residents turned out Tuesday to oppose a plan to sell part of Pine Island Preserve as "surplus land," an idea being considered by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

A knot of concerned citizens surrounded Ken Frink, director of the water district operations, lands and resource monitoring division, during an information session in Sarasota.

Frink was discussing plans for 66 acres of Manatee County's largest island preserve, which sits in the middle of the Braden River just upstream from the State Road 64 Bridge.

"I live on the river," said Bill Halstead, a longtime resident. "I'm concerned about any development that could negatively impact the river."

"It's a very valuable natural area" in a place in which there is almost no other access to such spots, said Randy Edwards, Ph.D., whose studies focus on estuarine and fish ecology. "Also it's very ecologically valuable for fish and habitats."

"It needs to stay in real clear public ownership," said

Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.

Frink told about 20 people at the workshop sale plans remain preliminary and he is still formulating recommendations to be reviewed by the district board of governors when it meets in May.

The idea is to sell lands with little ecological value in order to buy those with significant natural features, he said. Lands considered surplus also may be protected by conservation easements limiting what development can take place there.

Asked who actually owns the land, Frick said he would have to look at who paid for it and review management agreements. He said he didn't know about a bitter fight 15 years ago between a citizens group and a developer, who wanted to build homes there.

The property, accessible only by boat, was purchased with public money in 2003 after a long legal fight.

"I'm really disappointed that someone has to give the district the history of this property," said Edwards.

District officials have set an April 20 meeting with the county and city of Bradenton counterparts to discuss the matter.

Others complained about the informal format of the workshop, which did not allow attendees to address each other as a group.

Earlier in the day, the Manatee County Commission voted unanimously to oppose the proposed sale after the county natural resources chief said he would be "very concerned" at the loss of a natural island.

"Your staff has spent 10 years maintaining this property," said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County director of parks and natural resources. "It is not very often that a government employee like myself can say: 'Not in my backyard.'"

The water management district, which oversees 16 Florida counties, including Manatee, also listed another piece of Manatee County land as a possibility for sale: 57 acres of the Little Manatee River Corridor, Southfork Tract.

That drew the ire of Karen Willey, who operates an eco-business called Around the Bend Nature Tours.

The parcel in question is surrounded by public lands, she said, adding the district "should be keeping public lands, not selling them."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.