Southwest Florida water board wants to negotiate transfer of Pine Island Preserve to Manatee County

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.

TAMPA -- The Southwest Florida Water Management District board approved a motion Tuesday directing staff to negotiate a transfer agreement with Manatee County to protect Pine Island Preserve from being sold.

The board OK'd the motion unanimously after Manatee County residents and officials objected to the agency's inclusion of 66 acres of the island preserve on a list of properties suitable for sale.

Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County director of parks and natural resources, told the board since Manatee County and the city of Bradenton each contributed $150,000 to acquire Pine Island, it should be preserved in public ownership.

Arlene Flisik of Bradenton noted Manatee County managed the preserve for years under a 30-year agreement at no cost to SWFWMD, and it would be reasonable to transfer title for free to the county.

"I say: 'Why sell?'" she asked board members meeting in Tampa, one of whom is Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff.

If the parties are able to agree on transfer terms, officials would still have to return to the water agency board for approval, said Ken Frink, director of the water

district Operations, Lands and Resource Monitoring Division.

Frink is heading a biennial effort to dispose of properties no longer fitting SWFWMD's mission. Money garnered from land sales would be used to buy more environmentally significant property, officials have said.

The lush island preserve in the middle of the Braden River is just south of the State Road 64 boat ramp and accessible only by boat. In 2003, it was purchased with public money under the Florida Forever land preservation program after residents prevailed in a long legal fight with a developer.

Pine Island is important because it is one of the county's attractive natural places, which are economic as well as environmental assets, said Manatee resident Mary Sheppard.

SWFWMD board member George Mann advocated a free transfer as opposed to charging Manatee money for the property or requiring a land exchange.

"The taxpayers have already paid for this property," Mann said. "I don't want them to have to pay for it twice."

The agency oversees water issues in 16 southwest Florida counties, including Manatee.

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