County eager to buy and preserve choice properties


If you know of a beautiful, undeveloped piece of property in your neighborhood – or anywhere else in Indian River County – that you would like to see preserved for future generations, give the county a call.

Actually, you have to fill out a brief form online, not call, but the opportunity is wide open for individuals and organizations to nominate ecologically valuable parcels for preservation.

“We are looking everywhere,” said District 3 County Commissioner Joe Earman, a third-generation county resident. “We are looking along the lagoon, out west near the Florida Wildlife Corridor and in neighborhoods, where there might be a special piece of land that has not been developed.”

It’s all part of a campaign to “acquire and permanently preserve environmentally significant lands to restore the Indian River Lagoon, protect water resources, natural areas, wildlife habitat [and] drinking water resources.”

A $50-million environmental lands bond issue for that purpose was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2022.

Since then, the matter has faded somewhat from public awareness, but county officials have been busy revising the criteria for what lands are eligible and how they will be evaluated, and picking a select panel of land management, real estate, financial and environmental experts to rank the nominated parcels.

The land acquisition effort is intended as a counterweight to the rapid pace of development in the county.

“Growth is not a bad thing, but we don’t want sprawl,” said Earman, who was elected in 2020 on a platform of protecting the county’s environment and lifestyle from dense, West Palm Beach-style development. “Nobody wants to be pushed up against other people and sit through three or four red lights to get through an intersection.

“Right now, we are at a point where it could go either way, but with efforts like this environmental lands acquisition, I think we are in a good position to protect our quality of life for future generations.”

Earman is the Board of County Commissioners liaison to the Environmental Land Acquisition Panel, a nine-member group chaired by former county commissioner Peter O’Bryan. He keeps the board up to date on the panel’s discussions and actions and helps the panel better understand county policies and procedures.

“I am excited about the quality of the panel,” Earman said. “We are fortunate to have some very savvy professionals with great credibility – good conservation people and good money people.”

Property nominations opened on March 1, and county Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Beth Powell told Vero Beach 32963 that it is likely the first properties will have been identified, vetted and acquired by next year at this time.

You don’t have to own a property or even know who owns it to put it in the queue for consideration. The county won’t use eminent domain to acquire land but will identify and cold call an owner to see if they are willing to sell an environmentally desirable parcel.

In some cases, owners might keep the deed to the property while being paid for a conservation easement that protects its environmental qualities.

“We’ve only had one property recommended by the owner, so far,” said Wendy Swindell, the county’s conservation lands manager, who is coordinating staff work for the effort and has created a website where the public can track progress.

There are minimum requirements for a parcel to be put in the queue – it must be at least 5 acres in size or connected to a conservation parcel at least that large, or support rare and imperiled species of plants or animals, regardless of parcel size, or have an ecosystem with “reasonable potential for restoration.”

Once over that hurdle, each property will be ranked according to a detailed scientific and social matrix that assigns points for things like potential habitat value, contribution to a wildlife corridor or greenway, and recreational and educational value, with 1,000 being a perfect score.

Selection criteria are complex when it gets down to evaluating the fine ecological details of two highly ranked competing properties, but it is a common-sense process to begin with.

An abandoned building site with a couple of pretty oak trees that is surrounded by subdivisions and shopping centers is easy to cross off the list, while 50 acres of undisturbed upland forest that shelters several of Florida’s 134 threatened or endangered species, or slopes down to a wetland that filters stormwater entering the lagoon, is a much better prospect.

Two of the four properties nominated so far, which sit side-by-side along Jungle Trail north of Island Club, are likely to get high scores from the Environmental Land Acquisition Panel, or ELAP as it is called in county documents.

The Jungle Trail Island Manor Property is 19.4 acres of former citrus grove. The Jungle Trail Fischer Property is 3.7 acres of redundant grove land that locks into the larger parcel like a puzzle piece.

Both formerly agricultural parcels would be for restoration more than preservation, which might downgrade them a little bit, but they extend to the shore of the lagoon, which makes them potentially important for protecting water quality.

They also adjoin the 111-acre Captain Forster Hammock Preserve, the last remaining large ocean-to-river parcel of native landscape on the barrier island between Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge and the St. Lucie County line.

“Captain Forster is amazing,” said Swindell. “If you want to see a natural maritime hammock, that is the place to go.”

The larger parcel is owned by Manor Development LLC, which has submitted preliminary plans for a subdivision on the site. But county officials have said the plan faces significant challenges, including a lack of access from A1A. Those challenges might make for a more willing seller when the county comes calling.

If the two nominated parcels are acquired, they would increase the size of the conservation area to 134 acres, creating an impressive stronghold for native plants and animals – and frazzled humans – on the barrier island.

Just how seriously the county takes the current environmental lands acquisition process is indicated by the roster of high-ranking officials who attend the panel’s monthly meetings.

County Administrator John Titkanich, Deputy County Administrator Michael Zito, Planning and Development director Andy Sobczak, and Deputy County Attorney Susan Prado are among those who routinely occupy the bleachers, sitting alongside Earman, Powell, Swindell – and others.

“Indian River Land Trust staff have attended every ELAP meeting since last September, asking pertinent questions and providing helpful input,” said Land Trust executive director Ken Grudens, who was a leader in the effort to get the bond referendum approved.

“The Land Trust anticipates nominating one or more properties to the county program on behalf of landowners that wish to be considered for the program,” Grudens added. “The preservation of our conservation lands is paramount to protecting the county’s waterways, wildlife habitat, and water recharge areas. It is also critically important for providing natural green places for our residents and future generations to enjoy, forever.”

This is the third conservation land bond issue passed in Indian River County in the past 32 years. Voters approved $26 million in bonds in 1992 and another $50 million in 2004. That $76 million resulted in the acquisition of 38 sites partially or wholly owned or managed by the county. The sites encompass more than 12,000 acres and protect 17 distinct natural habitats.

“We always try to leverage every purchase with local, state and federal grants,” said Powell.

The $76 million from the first two environmental bonds attracted an additional $62 million from FDEP, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Florida Inland Navigation District and other agencies for a total of $138 million. If that ratio holds for the current bond funding, citizens could get something like $90 million in new conservation land.

“We might buy something that cost $50 million out by the Florida Wildlife Corridor and only have to pay $25 million,” said Earman, whose district takes in much of the city of Vero Beach along with a vast swath of rural land that extends to the Fort Drum Wildlife Management Area.

Fort Drum staddles the county’s western border and is within the state wildlife corridor, which covers nearly 17.7 million acres, with 9.6 million acres of existing conserved lands and 8.1 million acres that are “considered as opportunity areas for future conservation,” according to the Florida wildlife Corridor Foundation.

The current acquisition process starts with nominations, which can be made by anyone in the county. County staff will do a quick review to see if properties meet minimum requirements and pass them on to ELAP if they do.

ELAP will study, visit, vet and dream about the properties before ranking the first six months’ worth of nominations into tiers. Staff will then present the top-tier properties to the county commission, which will approve or modify ELAP’s recommendations.

Staff and consultants will further vet the approved properties, making sure they are what they seem, and enter into purchase or easement negotiations when they find willing sellers.
There is no end date for nominations. ELAP will continue recommending a group of properties every six months until all the money is spent.

The additional property tax to pay for the 20-year, general obligation bonds will show up on millage statements in June and will cost the owner of a $250,000 house $43.73 annually, according to the county.

Once the bonds are issued, which Powell said would be in October, the county has three years to spend the money, but Swindell said the county will add some flexibility to the number by selling the bonds in two $25-million tranches.

In a time when there are many bitter divides in society, preserving conservation land is a cause that unites a wide spectrum of Indian River County voters.

“We got almost 80 percent yes votes in the referendum,” said Earman. “If we do it right now, it will continue to be right for the next generation. This is something we can easily afford that will help us protect our quality of life.”

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