BOCC Pivots to Approve Braden River Preserve

Dennis Maley
BRADENTON — At Tuesday’s meeting, the Manatee County Commission did not vote to create a municipal service tax unit to purchase land slated for development on the Braden River for a preserve. It did, however, vote 4-3 to purchase the land from countywide revenues.

Developer Pat Neal owns 33 acres on the Braden River. He bought it for $1.67 million in December of 2016 and got the board to fast-track a comp plan amendment needed to approve a 32-unit gated community. When a group of surrounding homeowners organized against it, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast sought to negotiate a sale of the property. Neal told them in 2017, around six months after he closed, that he'd let it go for a cool $3 million, allowing him to turn an enormous profit without ever breaking ground.

Petitions were signed and a scheme was hatched to poll community support for creating an MSTU that would pay the county back for the purchase price over 30 years. However, citizens were deeply divided and those that were against it even filed a suit seeking to prevent it. The BOCC continued the item, hoping that the Conservation Foundation, which controls 11 adjacent acres it would donate to the preserve, would either be able to raise the entire sale price, or at least a significant portion. The group says it has just over $1 million in pledges that were received since the last meeting.

It was clear early on that a majority of commissioners did not support the MSTU, both because of the opposition as well as the possible litigation. Commissioner Betsy Benac turned things upside down a bit when she made a surprise motion for the county to pick up the remaining cost of roughly $2 million through other countywide funds during the summer budget process.

Benac argued that even if the MSTU were created, it would be two years before the county began receiving tax revenue. "Either way we’re going to be funding the purchase with an inner-fund loan,” said Benac. "This just gives us more time to figure out how we’re going to pay for it. I think we have a wonderful opportunity, and I’d hate to see us lose it.”

Other commissioners were concerned about taking on the cost but open to discussion. Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she was leaning toward supporting the MSTU but wasn't comfortable deciding something so completely different on the spot. She invoked the upcoming statewide referendum for which voters will decide whether to add an additional $25,000 property tax exemption and said that the effect on revenues was too unpredictable to add an unplanned item to the budget.

Commissioner Stephen Jonsson was also uncomfortable with taking on the additional expense when the board is so often faced with saying no to projects it can't afford.

Commissioner Charles Smith first said that he was "disgusted" by the idea, noting that for 50 years the Palmetto community has been fighting for a public pool facility north of the river, only to be told that the money doesn’t exist. "Now all of a sudden we got $2 million?" said Smith. "There’s been no studies done, I don’t know how many kids are in the area, how much usage we anticipate. I can’t support that."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino remained the most vocal detractor of the project, arguing that it set a very dangerous precedent.

"What’s stopping a bunch of people who live near Evers Reservoir who are opposed to that development from asking for a preserve, and all of a sudden we’re being asked to pay Dr. Horton three times the price? I’m opposed to this fundamentally because it sets up a huge precedent. We’ll have people wearing green or red shirts at every meeting. Look at this. We’ve got neighbor against neighbor.

DiSabatino echoed the concerns of many of the project’s opponents over the seemingly arbitrary price, the appraisal of which they say is based solely on the existing $3 million option to sell. The item was not resolved before the lunch break as intended, but commissioners returned in much more amiable moods. After a bit more discussion the motion to accept the pledged contributions and fund the rest of the purchase through an inner-fund loan with funding to be determined during the summer budget process passed with DiSabatino, Whitmore and Jonsson dissenting.

"We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support and thank all for their investment in nature," said Christine Johnson, president of Conservation Foundation, in a statement following the vote. "Keep Woods, Inc. did an amazing job of grassroots advocacy. Their hard work activating the neighbors who cared to save this special piece of 'Old Florida' is a beacon to others. We also thank the Manatee Board of County Commissioners for considering a different approach to land conservation. It’s not often a community has the chance to save land from development."
In addition to the purchase price, setting up the "passive park," which will not include rest rooms or other amenities, will cost the county $300,000, while maintaining it will cost the county $20,000 a year.

Reader Comments
Trish Chandler
MAR 27, 2018  •  Ok so what else is new? Anyone shocked?
Mel Hoffman
MAR 25, 2018  •  After moving from Illinois, I though no state or city could be worse than Chicago for corruption. Bradenton is not only corrupt, a majority of theCommissioners are also stupidAND corrupt. The property bought for this "preserve" (really a remaining scrap of undeveloped land completely surrounded by intense development) was assessed at $1 valuation within the past 5 years and never more than $700,000 at full fair market appraised value. Neal "negotiated" with the Conservation Foundation. They asked him how much he "wanted." He said $3 million. This is what the county presented at "information meetings". Betsy Benac said she once tried to buy the property for DEVELOPMENT, now claims it is so valuable for a "preserve". Yes, the County taxpayers are paying for this land without appraisal, without utilizing the real estate acquisition experts YOU pay, and solely to satisfy a bunch crybabies in Braden Woods whose own homes were built in the same woods and are connected onto septic systems which leach human waste through the Evers Watershed. Go figure. Stupid. Corrupt. Yes, that IS Bradenton, the town famous for a Commissioner whose son is charged with "shark dragging" (Benac); involuntary manslaughter of Snooty the Manatee; and opioid addiction and deaths. You live here. You elected these people. Yes, YOU are responsible.
Randy Edwards
MAR 25, 2018  •  We have these Commissioners poor mouthing about spending $2 million on a very special environmental jewel. And then we have them opposing 100% impact fees. The fact of the matter is that spending on parks, saving green space and environmental conservation are needed because of the impact of growth. If they let the impact fees go up to the scientifically calculated 100%, there would be enough to pay for this and other parks that are needed to maintain some quality of life in Manatee County