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Manatee County headed towards Emerson Point Preserve expansion

Written by on Thursday, March 14, 2024

This is expected to become the second and, so far, most expensive purchase using a new tax.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Mar. 13, 2024

Host: This Manatee County Commission is known for enabling suburban sprawl into the county’s agricultural East, and that has created tensions and open conflict with residents and environmental activists. But yesterday, the five commissioners produced a rare moment of harmony when they voted unanimously to take steps towards expanding a natural preserve on a peninsula jotting into Tampa Bay. The Emerson Point purchase is now headed towards becoming the county’s second investment into preserving land, using a fund fed by a tax that was approved by 71 percent of county voters in 2020. Our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: In the Manatee County Commission meeting yesterday, the commissioners voted unanimously to tell staff and the county attorney to pursue negotiations to buy 97 acres next to the Emerson Point Preserve for $15.5 million.

The expansion, highlighted in pink

The two sides have come close over a purchase price, County Administrator Charlie Bishop told his bosses. The county’s latest appraisal has come in at $14.6 million, while the owners are asking for $15.5 million. That’s a sizable difference from the county’s first assessment, which had come in at $12.7 million.

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who had been the voice of concern over the price, said he thinks this is a “good buy”.

Kevin Van Ostenbridge: We started out millions and millions of dollars apart. The first appraisal came in at 12, well, the same appraisal came in at 12-something. We had another appraisal that came in at 11.8. We felt that those appraisals could be re-evaluated. I don’t want to say they were wrong by any means, but we felt they were, you know … appraising is an art, and there are different ways to look at property sometimes. 

We as commissioners, of course, have to be good stewards of tax dollars. We don’t want to set a precedent of, you know — here comes the government with a big check and they’re gonna overpay drastically for our property, we can ask for anything they want because they have to buy it because there’s political pressure. We weren’t going to cave to that. We were going to set a price and be good stewards of those tax dollars and ensure that we paid a fair price. The issue is, if we set that precedent and we start drastically overpaying for property, we’re dealing with a fixed pool of money on this. And so, if you overpay by 5 million three times, you’re going to end up 15 million short at the end, and there’s going to likely end up property that you’re not able to purchase, and you’re going to end up preserving less because you overspent along the way.

JW: He was the one who proposed the motion to go ahead with negotiations for $15.5 million. That made for a rare moment of harmony. This time, Van Ostenbridge did not accuse local environmentalists of being Communist, Soros-funded, or of grooming children to become activists. None of the activists accused commissioners of being in the pocket of developers.

Public commenters said they were happy the commissioners are going to tap into the fund 71 percent of county voters agreed to tax themselves for. The fund is used to buy and improve land, protect water, preserve wildlife habitat, and open parks. The average tax is $30 per household, and it is projected to generate $6.7 million a year.

Mason Gravely was among the many public commenters praising elected officials for their “change of heart”.

Mason Gravely: I recently asked my son, he’s turning five, I said, “What do you wanna do for your birthday?” And he thought about it for a second and then he said, “Dad, I want to go hiking in Emerson Point with you.” And my first thought was, “Wow. You really left a lot of money on the table, because I was willing to do a lot more than that.” And then I immediately thought, “Well, why do you want to do that?” And he said, “I love that place.” 

And so we go every week. We live right down the road, right on the county line of District 2 and 3. And he’s had a lot of firsts out there: first time catching a fish; first time paddle boarding; kayaking; seeing manatees; dolphins. All of those firsts have been there.

So I was very excited when I heard that we had the opportunity to expand this property by,30–40%, and you know, I didn’t tell him much because I don’t know if it was gonna happen, but it got me excited because what I noticed when I’m out there with him, it’s packed with other families, too. So I know I’m not the only parent experiencing these memories with their kids every weekend.

It’s literally thousands of others. Sometimes it’s very crowded. So when I saw this was going to be an expansion by this amount, I got very excited. It’s going to help alleviate some of that stress on the trails on the paddling trails on the fishing spots. But when I saw that there was some pushback, I just wanted to give my words and say I want to thank you. Thank you for changing your mind. Thank you for the change of heart.

JW: Commissioner Ray Turner took offense to the term “change of heart”, suggesting he and his colleagues had been wanting to conserve the Emerson Point land all along.

Ray Turner: This is not a change of heart. We’ve always wanted to purchase this piece of property. I think Commissioner Van Ostenbridge described the front side of it as: we don’t want to set a precedent. And so you guys understand what that means is every time we go to negotiate a deal, if we’re overpaying, that’s going to come up. Well, you overpaid on this one. That will be a response when we’re trying to negotiate a deal.

JW: All of his peers expressed their wholehearted support for the land purchase.

The Emerson Point Preserve expansion would be the second purchase using a fund that was created after the referendum in 2020. In January, the county closed on the Crooked River Ranch, 68 acres on the north shore of Manatee River, for $11.2 million. Six other properties are on the short list of the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee, which was created to steer the referendum money. They include three other properties on Tampa Bay, two properties in Parrish, and one in Myakka City.

One remaining point of negotiation of the Emerson Point land purchase is the location of a four-acre set-aside for the owners to build a home. Also, the county is pursuing a state grant for the purchase. Even though Van Ostenbridge praised Ron DeSantis at the meeting as “the greatest governor of America”, it isn’t clear whether that funding, or any other third-party funding, will come through.

Bill Webster, who has served on the Environmental Lands Acquisition Committee, urged everyone to not let the perfect stand in the way of getting things done.

Bill Webster: So, I don’t want to repeat any other things, only I’ll close with: please don’t allow the four acres reaching for the perfect to derail the almost perfect. So thanks again and, job well done.

JW: A final vote is expected after the two sides agree on the terms of the deal.

Two days later, it was back to the development routine. On Thursday, several rezones of agricultural land in Palmetto and Parrish was on agenda of the Manatee County Planning Commission.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


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