Braden Woods residents plead to conserve wooded area

Tucked among the abundant development in East Manatee, there sits a tract of wooded area along the Braden River, where wildlife such as deer, bobcats, gopher tortoises and owls call home.

Some Braden Woods and other East Manatee residents, who have formed the Keep Woods group, worry a proposed subdivision to be built in this wooded area will displace this wildlife.

“It is a spot preserved in middle of all this development,” Braden Woods resident Brenda Russell said.

With the proposed infill development, called Myara Subdivision, going for approval before the Manatee County Planning Commission on Thursday and the Manatee County Commission in early August , the Keep Woods members plan to ask the commission to direct county staff to look into buying the property to turn it into conservation land.

“This property hasn’t been destroyed at this point,” said Gary Hebert, a Braden Woods resident. “We are going to ask the commission to authorize the purchase of it.”

The property in question is not for sale. To designate property as a nature preserve, the county must first own the property, said county spokesman Nick Azzara.

“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.”

Funding could come from South Florida Water Management District’s Save Our Rivers program, said Hebert.

“It ties in perfectly with our situation,” he said.

According to SFWMD documents, the Save Our Rivers program is “a multipurpose tool that preserves rare and unique resources, protects areas of special local interest and prepares the groundwork for the water resource management needs of the 21st Century.”

The Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, which oversees parks and preserves, “is willing to help facilitate a connection with the Water Management District and will look to the property owners for their expression of willingness to follow that path,” said Charlie Hunsicker, department director.

Pat Neal, chairman of Neal Communities and the project’s developer, says Braden Woods residents have no desire to discuss anything besides a park.

“If we could talk meaningfully, I think there could be some solutions,” Neal told the Herald. “It is part of the job of being a real estate developer to talk to the neighbors. ... We believe that our proposal is the least environmentally damaging proposal of all the alternatives. I think we will be able to prove that at the public hearing.”

Proposed infill development in question

Myara Subdivision would include up to 32 houses on about 33 acres. The property owner is ESME I LLC of Venice. The development, which would be built on the north bank of the Braden River east of Interstate 75, goes before the planning commission this week and the Manatee County Commission on Aug. 4 for the rezone from residential single family — one dwelling unit per acre — to planned development residential — with a preliminary site plan.

County staff recommends denial of the rezone request and preliminary site plan, according to the staff report.

Only 18.7 acres of the property would be developable, which Braden Woods 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.

“In order to preserve the wetlands and buffer on the Braden River, we are clustering it so there is not the destruction,” Neal has said.

Since houses can be built on the property as it is now zoned, Russell said “everybody should be treated equitably.”

“We are very respectful of property rights,” she said. “We don’t think he should be treated differently than the people here already and who have invested.”

About 3,000 people from all over Manatee County have signed two petitions — 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.

“We are getting so much support,” Russell said. “We are optimistic, and I think the main reason we are optimistic is because the right thing to do is preserve it.”

Video highlights

Using a drone to capture aerial shots of the wooded area in contrast with the surrounding areas, the Keep Woods group created a video to highlight its opposition to the development.

“It was a way for people to visualize the property at stake here,” Braden Woods resident Phil St. John said. “The wildlife has migrated to it. People see signs and sign petitions and really don’t connect what is at stake here. If a wrong decision is made to change that, you can’t reverse that.”

The video really showed “what a doughnut hole we are talking about here,” Russell said.

“We thought that visual was very important,” she said. “We thought it was pretty striking.”

Unlike other groups of people who have strong feelings about a proposal going before the commission, the Braden Woods residents don’t plan to wear the same color T-shirts.

“We are about business,” Russell said. “We are serious about this. We expect to be taken seriously.”

St. John added: “We are addressing the merits and facts to help the community as a whole.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson