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Activists ask Manatee County to expand natural preserve

Written by on Wednesday, February 28, 2024

But how commissioners will vote on the Emerson Point land purchase on March 12 is unclear.

By Dawn Kitterman

The Bradenton Times

BRADENTON — Manatee County Commissioners will cast a vote on whether to move forward with the county’s purchase of approximately 97 acres of land adjacent to Emerson Point Preserve for conservation and expansion of the park. The land-purchase item will be heard at the next scheduled regular commission meeting.

Discussion of the land negotiations was not scheduled on Tuesday’s meeting agenda, but several community members gave public comment during the “future agendas” portion of the meeting, advocating scheduling the land purchase for a vote. Public speakers in support of the board taking up the item included Nick Baden, a former member of the Palma Sola Botanical Park board of directors, resident Ruth Lawler, ELMAC Committee Member Carol Ann Felts, Executive Director of Suncoast Waterkeeper Abbey Tyrna, and Bradenton Times Publisher Joe McClash.

Manatee County is negotiating the purchase of private land (in pink), to expand the Emerson Point Preserve (green).

“I think many people just assume this is dead, but I do not believe it is dead,” said County Commissioner George Kruse in his initial response to the public speakers. “I believe the intent of this board is to acquire this property for the expansion. We’re just trying to make sure that we are getting the right price.”

But comments from additional commissioners that followed Kruse appeared to suggest the board majority might be leaning toward walking away from current proposals offered by the seller. Commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Ray Turner, and Amanda Ballard each expressed displeasure with current contract negotiations and the potential purchase price — though each also added that it is their position that purchasing the land is something the board majority wants to do.

“I feel like we see this all the time in Manatee County,” said Kruse in response to his colleagues. “This is going to get kicked down the road and dragged on until everyone forgets about it, and then they stop coming and asking questions, and then it just disappears — sort of like with Mixon. At no point in time did we actually vote on the Mixon (fruit farm property). We just, behind the scenes, decided not to acquire it because it was perceived to be too expensive.”

“We can either vote yes or no; nothing is going to change on this piece of land two months from now, much less two weeks from now,” Kruse said.

Kruse added that by dragging out negotiations and delaying a vote of the board, the inaction would tie up environmental acquisition land funds and leave the property owner without a direct answer.

Kruse motioned to direct staff to seek the land owner’s “best and final offer” and return it to the board at its next scheduled regular meeting. Van Ostenbridge seconded his motion. Put to a vote, five commissioners supported the motion, with Commissioners Jason Bearden and Ballard dissenting.

If the final offer gains the commissioners’ approval, the funding for the property will be partially paid for with funds collected from the Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum. The measure was passed by 71 percent of Manatee voters in 2020. The board’s recent approval for the purchase of Crooked River Ranch was the first conservation park land purchased as a result of the 2020 referendum.

Last year, the county’s Environmental Lands Management and Acquisitions Committee (ELMAC) unanimously recommended commissioners direct county staff to begin the purchasing process, seek an appraisal, and enter negotiations for the property.

In April of 2023, ahead of the county commission’s vote on ELMAC’s recommendations, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) sent a letter to commissioners expressing strong support for the public acquisition of the Emerson Point Expansion land.

“I strongly encourage the county to consider acquiring and restoring this property so that it may serve a broad public benefit for county residents and the greater Tampa Bay watershed,” wrote TBEP’s Executive Director Ed Sherwood. “Protection and restoration of key habitats present on the Emerson Expansion property will directly support ongoing recovery efforts and future resilience initiatives within the estuary that the TBEP and its partners are currently pursuing.”

During an April 25, 2023 meeting, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of ELMAC’s recommendations to begin the acquisition process for the Emerson Point Expansion land and the Mixon Fruit Farm property. Negotiations for the Mixon property have reportedly since fallen through due to the seller’s proposed purchase price.

The next regular county commission meeting, during which the Emerson Point Expansion land purchase can be put to a vote, is scheduled for March 12.

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter and investigative journalist for The Bradenton Times covering local government news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


This article first appeared in The Bradenton Times. To read the original version, click here.