Purchase of conservation land in Sebastian approved despite price tag

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – For $347,000, the Board of County Commissioners approved moving forward on buying environmentally sensitive land in the City of Sebastian for conservation.

The decision came down to a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Bob Solari as the sole dissenter, citing concerns over the price tag and the operation of a citrus grove onsite.

The property, approximately 4.8 acres located north of County Road 510 near 86th Avenue in the upper portion of the St. Sebastian River, is owned by longtime residents Susan and Robert Russell, who requested the property be preserved rather than developed. Along with more than an acre of wetlands, the site has a nearly 2-acre citrus grove that conservationists say could be used as a historical and educational tool for visitors.

The money for the land acquisition will come from the county’s voter-approved environmental land acquisition bond funds – which currently has a balance of more than $670,000. Whether or not the county could receive state matching funds remains to be seen.

Despite Solari’s concerns over the proposed purchase price for the site, he did express general support for acquiring the land.

“I think this is an extremely appropriate purchase,” he said.

Being in the citrus industry for 24 years, though, Solari expressed some misgivings over the viability of operating a small citrus grove and allowing members of the public to harvest the fruit.

“Citrus is not an easy business to be in,” he said, adding that allowing the public to climb ladders to pick the fruit in the traditional manner is “more than questionable judgment in my mind.”

“This is a real feel good idea,” Solari continued, but in reality would be very difficult to implement.

Other commissioners also took issue with the price but justified the cost by explaining that a non-profit group adjacent to the property had offered to manage the site and run the citrus grove as an educational tool.

The group, the Marine Resources Council of East Florida, has verbally agreed to take care of the property as an extension of its nearly eight acres next door. The organization has been improving the natural condition of its own property by removing exotic plant species and also plans to open a visitor’s center, which would play off the citrus grove.

“This is the right thing to do for the environment for our heritage and for conservation,” said Ruth Stanbridge, a member of Marine Resources Council, during the public hearing.

Only one member of the public spoke against approving the acquisition Tuesday.

Resident Bob Johnson asked commissioners to table the issue for another meeting so that a written agreement could be created between the non-profit and the county concerning land management.

Commissioner Wesley Davis said he feels comfortable having the organization manage the property, noting that the environmental non-profits tend to be more focused and driven to return the conservation lands to their natural state.

Commission Chair Peter O’Bryan agreed, adding that he believes the Marine Resources Council would honor its verbal commitment.

“I’ll take him on his word,” O’Bryan said of Jim Egan, the organization’s executive director who promised to manage the site.

O’Bryan also said he has similar concerns as Solari’s regarding the operation of the citrus grove, but the citrus grove is the least of his reasons for supporting the purchase.

The commissioner explained that even without the prospect of having a functioning citrus grove the public could observe and participate in, the property would be a good buy for the county. He noted the land would be preserved and serve as protection to the St. Sebastian River and the county would not have to manage it or provide the amenities it would normally need because the Marine Resources Council would do so.

“That’s kind of the gravy,” O’Bryan said of the citrus grove – if the council can operate the grove.

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