Lakewood Ranch Herald

SWFWMD board to decide future of Manatee's lush Pine Island Preserve

MANATEE -- A plan to sell part of Pine Island Preserve as surplus land is still under consideration by the Southwest Florida Water Management District as its governing board prepares to meet next week.

A county official termed negotiations are going well about selling the 66-acre portion of the island preserve.

"They still consider the property surplus, but conversations we have had are encouraging," said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County director of parks and natural resources. "The staff are poised to recommend back to their governing board to consider alternatives to surplus."

Water district officials will recommend Pine Island remain surplus property as it is no longer needed for conservation or other district purposes, according to spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.

The recommendation suggests staff be authorized to

negotiate an equitable exchange or transfer with Manatee County to eliminate potential district costs prior to offering title to the state and initiating a public sale, said Martinez Tarokh.

The matter is still up in the air, said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida director of advocacy.

"They are going to make a recommendation that sounds like they will give the county the chance to acquire the property from the district -- it does not sound like they will offer it for free," said Lee. "They're suggesting the county will have to pay something or exchange something to get the land."

Lee emphasized the Audubon group would oppose anything except conservation for the lush island, which sits in the middle of the Braden River upstream from the State Road 64 Bridge.

"Absolutely, it's a very important natural resource, it has a lot of wildlife habitat, you can imagine the impact if you were to try to develop that land in the middle of the river," Lee said.

In March, the Manatee County Commission voted unanimously to oppose the proposed sale. The property, accessible only by boat, was purchased with public money in 2003 after a long legal fight between citizens and a developer.

The original funding for its purchase came from the Florida Forever Trust Fund, designed to protect sensitive lands across the state, according to the SWFWMD website.

The water district governing board is set to hear recommendations on the surplus lands issue during its meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Tampa Service Office, 7601 U.S. 301 (Fort King Highway), Tampa, 813-985-7481. The meeting is free and open to the public.

The water management district oversees 16 Florida counties, including Manatee.

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

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