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Date of Issue: January 28, 2009

Private owner pushes plan to build in FISH Preserve

Scrub or road?
Property owned by Iris Lemasters is located in the middle of the FISH Preserve east of Cortez. Lemasters is requesting part of an undeveloped right of way be vacated by Manatee County, apparently to facilitate access to and construction of a single-family home. Islander Photo: Paul Roat

First Cortez had to battle the whims of weather to bring in its fish. Then came development that threatened habitat vital to a vibrant fishery.

Cortezians thought they had the development battle won with the acquisition of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage Preserve on the eastern flank of the village, 100 acres or so of wetlands and sparse uplands that it bought for a nature preserve.

Or mostly bought. There is still a tiny parcel, a swath 100 feet by 400 feet, smack in the middle of the preserve that its owner wants to develop for a single-family home.

A path to the property was bulldozed late last year without permits. Manatee County officials have posted no-trespassing signs on the site, but off-roaders are roaring through the pristine preserve nonetheless, damaging fragile habitat.

And the property owner, Iris Lemasters of Grand Rapids, Mich., is expected to go before the Manatee County Commission Feb. 10 to request vacation of a platted but unimproved right of way adjacent to her property.

Bill Smith of the Manatee County Property Management Department said several other platted but undeveloped easements had been vacated in past years, but all were on behalf of FISH to create the preserve.

The potential of development is alarming to FISH members, who worked to purchase the preserve property. The FISH board of directors will address the pending vacation request at its meeting Feb. 3.

At issue is more than just a road and a house in the middle of a habitat restoration, said Cortez Heritage Site Manager Roger Allen.

Federal and state grants have been applied for and received, with more in the works, to restore the FISH Preserve to its once-pristine condition. The grants are in question if any property is developed, he indicated.

“Lemasters is destroying the habitat we are trying to preserve,” Allen said.

The property owner has rejected for many offers to purchase the land from FISH.

The most recent offer for the parcel represented nine times what was paid for the land. At one point, Lemasters listed the property for $1.2 million.

However, the bulk of the preserve’s 100 acres was bought for slightly more than $400,000.

Curb cuts leading to the questionable road from Cortez Road have been requested and road construction is proceeding at an estimated cost of $20,000, Allen said.

He’s had to go onto the property 16 times so far to chase off-roaders from the preserve who now access the property illegally via the roadway and rip up the wetlands with their vehicles.

As Allen described the situation: “It’s a catastrophe.”

The FISH board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, at the Cortez Community Center on 121st St. W., Cortez.

The county commission meeting to discuss the matter will be at 9 a.m. Feb. 10 at the county administration building in Bradenton.