FISH achieves longtime goal to close ‘doughnut hole’

The missing link in the middle of a pristine preserve in Cortez was finally offered at an affordable price.

The Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage is under contract to purchase three parcels representing a doughnut hole in its 93 acres of preserve acquisitions.

Karen Bell, A.P. Bell Fish Co. owner and FISH negotiator, announced Aug. 1 to the board of FISH directors that Iris Lemasters signed the contract in July, accepting the board’s $185,000 offer.

Lemasters purchased the three parcels, measuring 0.504 acres, in November 1997 for $3,000, according to the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s website.

A November closing is expected.

FISH director Jane von Hahmann called the Lemasters’ property the “doughnut hole,” in reference to the parcels being surrounded by the preserve’s 23 upland acres and 70 acres of mangroves and submerged lands.

The preserve is bounded by 119th Street West on the west, Cortez Road on the north and Sarasota Bay on its south.

Also in the preserve tract are two privately held lots — a 150-by-150 foot parcel owned by former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash and another lot on the northeast corner owned by Andrew Mills — and Florida Department of Transportation parcels and rights of way.

Von Hahmann hopes McClash will donate his property to FISH.

She doesn’t know what Mills is asking, but “since it’s on Cortez Road we don’t need it,” von Hahmann wrote in an Aug. 4 email.

FISH budgeted $92,500 for the Lemasters purchase.

Harbor Bank is expected to finance the remaining $92,500, after a review of tax returns and financials through June, Bell said.

Attorney Bob Schermer of Green Hamrick Quinlan & Schermer is handling the acquisition for FISH.

In addition to owning the preserve property, the Cortez nonprofit supports a boat-building operation, partners with the Cortez Village Historical Society and Manatee County-owned Florida Maritime Museum on 119th Street West and organizes the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in February.

In 2000, FISH acquired most of the preserve, subdivided into small lots in the 1950s, from Louise Schewe for $250,000.

Bell conducted the Lemasters and other negotiations.

Lemasters was a reluctant seller “for at least 10 years,” Bell said in May.

Von Hahmann said Lemasters was asking for $1.6 million and then reduced the price to $800,000, $600,000 and $300,000.

Lacking road access and utilities, some members of FISH considered the “doughnut” to be difficult if not impossible to develop — and of much lower value.

“We always knew we couldn’t spend what they were asking,” von Hahmann added.

The three lots are valued at $26,400 on the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s website.

After the meeting, von Hahmann spoke of the preserve’s history.

In the mid-2000s, part of the preserve’s east side was restored at a $40,000 price tag, but more conservation work on the eastern flank remains to be done.

“We will include Lemasters’ parcels in the next project for sure,” von Hahmann said.

A conservation easement held by Manatee County — saving the property from future development — was imposed in 2012, von Hahmann said, adding she was uncertain if such an easement would be extended to the parcels under contract.

In 2014-15, FISH completed a $250,000 restoration on the western half of the preserve, partnering with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The project created wetlands, improved tidal circulation and re-established hydrologic cycles and included exotic vegetation and refuse removal.

Over the years, Lemasters signaled development intentions on the property to Manatee County — to the dismay of FISH leaders who hoped to close the gap in the center of the preserve.

            Negotiations between FISH and the seller rekindled in 2016, after Lemasters contacted Bell for another reason, von Hahmann said.

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