Manatee County expands on nature

Armed with a plan to acquire an additional 150 acres for the Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton, Manatee County Natural Resources director Charlie Hunsicker announced at a public meeting July 15 an ambitious expansion of the park.

Speaking before an estimated 40 people at the Palma Sola Botanical Park in northwest Bradenton, Hunsicker said funding for the expansion could come from the BP Oil spill settlement to Manatee County, a Southwest Florida Water Management District grant, private donations or a combination of all three.

Hunsicker said Manatee County Commissioners will meet Oct. 31 to approve a cooperative agreement with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to own the added property. The $4 million in funding for the foundation to purchase the 150 acres and donate it to the county came from the Mosaic Foundation, part of the Mosaic phosphate mining company in central Florida.

Hunsicker said the Robinson family withheld 200 acres when it sold 501 acres to the county in 2002 to create the preserve. The family intended to build single-family homes and a golf course on the 200 acres, but the downturn in the economy made the plan not viable, Hunsicker said.

After selling 150 of the 200 acres, the remaining 50 acres will be used by Neal Communities for single-family homes, Hunsicker said, unless the county can find additional funding to buy that land. The price is $6 million.

But 150 acres gives Hunsicker’s department room to greatly expand and enhance the preserve, he said.

Plans call for restoration of the coastal habitat as it was in the 1940s, construction of a rookery for sea terns and other birds, open water features to support tidal circulation and recreation, additional parking areas, a walkway under a tree canopy and construction of a “true environmental center with age-specific playground areas to accommodate the steadily increasing popularity of the preserve,” Hunsicker said.

The environmental center will be named the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology.

Additionally, a new kayak launch will be established along with a 1.6 mile trail for pedestrians and joggers through the canopy of trees in the preserve. Bicyclists will have their own path to avoid interference with walkers and runners, he said.

Hunsicker estimated the cost of improvements to the preserve at $4.1 million and said the funds likely would come from the county’s share of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. The total cost of improvements and purchasing the additional 150 acres is about $8.2 million, he said.

“The only problem is I don’t know when the BP settlement is going to happen. It could take years,” he said. Hunsicker has learned from attorneys handling Florida’s claim with BP that Manatee County will receive $4 million-$19 million in the settlement. Without waiting for any BP money, Hunsicker is applying to Swiftmud for a $4 million grant to pay for the improvements. At the same time, he’ll also seek other funding sources.

“We’re not going to wait,” he said. County commissioners are expected to approve the expansion at their Sept. 13 meeting. Once that occurs and as funds become available, construction on the improvements will begin, he said.

Hunsicker and his staff of Melissa Nell and Max Dersch received several rounds of applause from those attending the meeting.

The general sentiment among the attendees was the hope that Hunsicker could find the money to purchase the remaining 50 acres from Neal Communities to maintain the entire area as a nature preserve.

Hunsicker noted the expansion is separate from the Perico Preserve project, which is creating saltwater lakes to grow seagrass for areas of Sarasota Bay, Perico Bayou and Anna Maria Sound that may need replenishment of seagrasses. The Perico Preserve also will provide homes to a number of birds and other wildlife.

The fill from digging the lakes is being sold to Minto Communities for its Perico Island-Harbour Isle project, Hunsicker said. The funds help cover expenses related to the Perico Preserve, he added.

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