EAST MANATEE -- Carl Bergstresser watches deer come onto his property, just near the Braden Woods subdivision, every night at 7 p.m.
For the East Manatee resident, who has owned about 12 acres along the Braden River for more than 30 years, the daily spotting of wildlife is what he loves about living here.
"I see deer on a daily basis, wild boar, bobcats, coyote, eagles, gopher tortoises. I mean a good number of species," Bergstresser said.
But Bergstresser, along with Braden Woods residents, fears that a proposed subdivision, which would be built in the wooded area behind Braden Woods, would displace this wildlife. Some of the wildlife has even been named by the residents.
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The proposed infill development, called Myara Subdivision, would include up to 32 houses on about 33 acres. The property owner is ESME I LLC of Venice and the developer is Neal Communities.
"This is a big open community where animals can roam," said Brenda Russell, who lives in Braden Woods. "He wants to change the whole character."
Braden Woods residents and Pat Neal, chairman of Neal Communities, met immediately after a county Development Review Committee meeting. Neal says he's been trying to schedule a meeting with residents since then.
"It was pleasant, useful. We did have a good exchange of views," Neal said of the initial meeting. "I think there's a lot of commonalities that we can agree to if they agree to meet with me, but so far they have deferred. ... When we meet, I think we will find many things to agree on."
The residents are not avoiding him, says Braden Woods resident Gary Hebert.
"We are not really sure what it is that he expects from us," Hebert said. "We have already told him our concerns. I'm
not really sure what he can offer at this point."
Still in early stages
The development, which would be built on the north bank of the Braden River east of Interstate 75, is still in applicant or county staff review. Public hearings before the planning commission and county commission for the rezone from residential single family -- one dwelling unit per acre to planned development residential -- and a preliminary site plan have not been scheduled.
Neal noted the county's comprehensive plan currently allows up to three units per acre.
Only 18.7 acres of the property would be developable, which Braden River residents say is inconsistent with the surrounding area. Braden Woods is a subdivision of about 500 homes built in the late 1980s at a density of about one home per acre.
The homes are proposed to be clustered so they don't affect the wetlands on the property, Neal said.
"In order to preserve the wetlands and buffer on the Braden River, we are clustering it so there is not the destruction," he said.
The opposition to the housing development spans farther than the residents abutting the property, Braden Woods residents say. More than 2,300 people have signed two petitions from all over Manatee County -- one asking the commission to deny the rezone request and the other to preserve the land as a nature preserve. Other concerns include the effect on the Braden River and the overall quality of life for the people and wildlife.
In January, a website called keepwoods.com was started.
"All the wildlife that we've had in the area that has been run out from development has called this home for many years, and they have no other place to go," said Bergstresser, whose property is directly to the west of the proposed development. "We would love for the county and the state to join hands and step in and try to preserve this land for what wildlife exists still in our neighborhoods. That's why a lot of people enjoy living here. That's why they bought here, and they always believed that it would stay a preserve."
To designate a piece of property as a nature preserve, Manatee County government would have to first own the property, according to Nick Azzara, the county's spokesman. Prior to the Great Recession, the county commission had "intervened to purchase sensitive land in response to strong public support," such as Conservatory Park near Palm-Aire. "The first hurdle to creating a conservation land at Braden Woods is that the land simply isn't for sale," Azzara said. "If that land were for sale, a more significant roadblock would be a matter of funding -- or lack thereof. There's no millage specially marked for conservation lands in Manatee County."
'No special habitat'
According to the environmental report in the development application, there is "no significant utilization of the subject parcel by listed species. In addition, during a preliminary onsite evaluation, no state or federally listed species were observed nesting or denning within onsite habitats, with the exception of potentially occupied gopher tortoise burrows observed in pine flatwoods areas." The tortoises would be captured and relocated to an approved offsite long-term protection area prior to the start of construction, according to the report, which also indicates that there are no significant impacts on wetlands.
On Friday, Neal reiterated "there is no protected or special habitat on this land."
The proposed housing development would be less destructive than the county's long-term plan to build an extension of Linger Lodge Road through the property, Neal said.
"We think we are offering the better alternative for that land," he said.
When Ethel Carter moved into Braden Woods 27 years ago, there used to be other wildlife, such as quail, which has already disappeared.
"It is a refuge for wildlife," she said. "Something needs a place to keep our community as beautiful. That's why we all came here."
The woods are what sold Russell on the Braden Woods neighborhood after a six-month search for a home.
"It's going to be attacked," she said. "I still see a lot of wildlife. I felt like I finally found one little slice of paradise and first thing come in and decimate the animals. Where else will they have left to go?"
If Russell would have known about the proposed development, she said she would not have bought in Braden Woods.
"I definitely would not have invested here if I knew they were going to tear down nature and put in a walled community," she said. "This is only going to benefit a very small group, the developer and landowner. Nobody wants this. When people hear about it, the instant reaction is 'No.'"
Some pockets need to be preserved for the beauty of Manatee County, Carter said.
"That's what we are losing," she said. "The ecosystem is fragile. Once something is gone, it's gone. You can't say 'I wish we should have.'"
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.