State leaders have agreed to acquire more than 5,000 acres of land in Sarasota County for conservation.
Environmentalists have long had their eyes on Orange Hammock Ranch in North Port because of its proximity to other preserved lands in the Myakka River watershed.
Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, says the property is a pristine habitat.
“It not only has wetlands that help filter water for the drinking water supply of the city of North Port, but it also has globally imperiled habitat called Dry Prairie on it,” she said. “It's been impeccably maintained and is also home to many imperiled species like the indigo snake, the gopher tortoise, and the scrub jay. It's even been known to have panther come across it."
Officials approved acquiring the property for $21 million through the Florida Forever Conservation program with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast pledging to contribute $1.5 million through fundraising. The nonprofit has until June to raise the money.
"This piece of property has been on both developers as well as conservationist’s lists for some time,” said Johnson. “It was once slated for a housing development called ‘Isles of Athena’ but the landowner went bankrupt,” she continued. “Then another landowner purchased it and also went bankrupt. Now it's owned by a partnership and they were willing to sell it to the Department of Environment Protection for a nice price."
The property was identified by Sarasota County in 1998 as a critical natural protection area, and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast first added the property to the State's Florida Forever list of land acquisition priorities in 2013.
The property will be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and will eventually be open to the public.
The Governor and Cabinet also agreed to acquire a conservation easement over approximately 559 acres within the Myakka Ranchlands Florida Forever project in Manatee County. In a press release, the administration said “this property is adjacent to Flatford Swamp, owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is an important aquifer recharge area and surface water feature for the headwaters of the Myakka River corridor.”