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Phillippi Creek Restoration Under Way - With A Little Help

A cleanup of one of the most urban - and polluted - streams running through Sarasota began Saturday.  We visit one condominium, whose residents not only asked for help to restore Phillippi Creek - but are helping to pay for it, as well.

We're just steps from the Orchid Oaks condominiums, a collection of three-story buildings off Tuttle Avenue. Only a mile away from downtown Sarasota, I walk with wetlands scientist Ronnie Van Fleet into a preserved area that's seemingly miles into the woods.

"It's quite amazing that it's so productive for wildlife, being that it's actually in a very urbanized part of Sarasota County and Phillippi Creek, which has been developed since the 20's," says Van Fleet, a scientist with the environmental engineering firm VHB.

In the space of five minutes, we see the flaming red crest of a pileated woodpecker on an old snag across the river. It's considered one of the biggest, most striking birds you'll find in North America.

"Here, we have a brown thrasher, which is really a neat and interesting bird. We have screech owls, we have barred owls which are nesting on the property," he says. "There's osprey and eagles that use a lot of the large trees. And we've got a lot of the urban wildlife too - we've got bobcat, fox, I mean anything that you would expect."

Unlike its neighbors, this stretch of the creek has escaped the steel teeth of the bulldozer.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Ronnie Van Fleet, right, with Jane McCuiston

But all is not so hunky-dory.

Van Fleet says many of the native species are being crowded out by introduced newcomers with no natural enemies. This is why the cleanup is needed. The red berries of Brazilian pepper shine bright through the green leaf cover. Telltale purple flowers of water hyancinth crowd out the creek's shoreline.

"We've got air potato, and carrotwood and a whole host of exotic species that are in this area," he said. "What we're trying to do with this restoration project is to to remove those exotics and replace them with native plants."

It's not often that a condominium asks environmental officials to come and trample on their land. And this restoration doesn't come cheap. The Sarasota Neighborhood Grants program and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program required matching grants to make it work.

So a one-woman force was formed: resident Jane McCuiston. She says this is personal to her.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Jane McCuiston

"I have a little dog and my husband and me walk here every day, two times a day - we absolutely love it," she says during a walk on the property. "It's like - just like they say, twenty minutes in nature brings you back to peace and quiet. So it is very much a retreat for us."

McCuiston started knocking on doors, and eventually the condo residents chipped in a match of $10,000 of their own money.

"Most of the residents here were excited about that, to the tune of almost 60 percent," she said. "So that was what we thought was a resounding success. The people who live in this community respect the environment and they live here and choose to live here because of that."

This isn't the first time the condo has taken to the front lines of conservation. McCuiston says a few years back they asked University of Florida biologists to introduce an exotic beetle from China to eat the invasive air potato. Even though the vine is seemingly everywhere, the beetles are doing their job - the plant's heart-shaped leaves are riddled with holes.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Air potato beetle

Van Fleet says their work sets a precedent and a model for other landowners around the creek. He hopes people will take down seawalls to create habitat for fish. Remove exotic species. Ease up on the use of fertilizer so nutrients down wash downstream into Sarasota Bay.

And since this is the closest preserve along Phillippi Creek to the bay downstream, Van Fleet believes this cleanup can have a direct impact on the health of Sarasota Bay.

Anyone wanting to help out with the cleanup and planting of native species can visit Orchid Oaks Condominium the morning of August 12.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Phillippi Creek scene

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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