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Date of Issue: February 18, 2009

County board narrowly denies Cortez land vacation

Cortezians appear as perplexed as Manatee County Commissioners regarding the request to vacate an undeveloped but platted roadway through a nature preserve just east of the fishing village.

Iris LeMasters petitioned the county to vacate a 60-foot-wide platted but undeveloped roadway adjacent to her undeveloped property — which is situated in the middle of the 100-acre Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage Preserve. The FISH Preserve was purchased several years ago with the intent of creating a natural wetland area to buffer the village.

County commissioners split 3-3 on the vacation vote Feb. 10 when Joe McClash cited a conflict of interest and did not vote on the matter. He owns property near the FISH Preserve.

Commissioners John Chappie, Ron Getman and Carol Whitmore voted against the vacation. Commissioners Larry Bustle, Gwen Brown and Donna Hayes voted in favor of the matter.

With a tie vote, the vacation was denied.

Cortez Heritage Sites manager Roger Allen said that discussions between county attorneys and the FISH Preserve attorney had already begun in an attempt to settle the matter, which he said would probably come back before the board.

The FISH board of directors had opposed vacating the right of way, platted as 45th Avenue West. “The loss of full use of this right of way would force FISH to reroute an existent major east-west access trail into a protected wetlands,” FISH president Allen Garner wrote to the county commission.

“As the property owner that shares the right of way and that has come to depend upon it for unimpeded access for public programming to the rest of the 100 acres that make up the FISH Preserve, we request that [the vacation] be rejected,” he said. 

A path to the FISH property was bulldozed late last year without permits. “No trespassing” signs were posted and a gate was installed, but recreational off-roaders were roaring through the pristine preserve, damaging fragile habitat.

The potential of development on the LeMasters property is alarming to FISH members, who purchased the surrounding FISH Preserve land several years ago.

At issue is more than just a road and house in the middle of a habitat restoration, said Allen.

Federal and state grants have been applied for and received, with more in the works, to restore the FISH Preserve to its once-pristine condition. The grants are in question if that property is developed, he indicated.

“LeMasters is destroying the habitat we are trying to preserve,” Allen has said.

The property owner has rejected offers to sell the land to FISH for many years. The last offer for the parcel represented nine times what she paid for the land.

At one point, LeMasters listed the property for $1.2 million. The bulk of the preserve’s 100 acres were bought for slightly more than $400,000.

As Allen put the it: “It’s a catastrophe.”

“It is beyond comprehension that you voted in favor of property owners that are completely surrounded by a grassroots community effort to preserve and restore native natural habitat by an organization that has succeeded in purchasing the property wholly on their own without government assistance,” wrote FISH board member Capt. Zach Zacharias to the county commission.

“Your vote in their favor is even more incredible when the property owners proceeded illegally to clear the 114th Street right of way to their property without the benefit of the proper permits,” he continued. “Please, be advised that even though none of you represent the district in which the FISH Preserve is located that there are countless individuals across the length and breadth of this county that are in complete support of what we are trying to accomplish on the FISH Preserve, and your vote against our efforts will be remembered at election time. I cannot think of a single reason that you would vote in favor of the property owner on a matter that is inconsequential to their interests and extremely important to ours.”

Several other platted but undeveloped streets within the FISH Preserve boundaries had been vacated by the county commission in the past few years at the request of FISH, Garner said, but “Our request to vacate rights of way was undertaken upon the advice of the Florida Department of Transportation as a necessary step in our continuing discussions about including two DOT retention ponds within the boundaries of the preserve in an overall habitat restoration program. The step was also encouraged by our grant officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency that has provided us with grant monies for recently completed habitat restoration on the southeast quarter of the preserve.

“Throughout the eight years of public fundraising required for the purchase, we have publicized that the property was being managed as a public nature preserve open to the general public even during the early habitat restoration phase of the management plan. We have organized public programs as part of the effort to clear the area of trash and debris and have partnered with other environmental and educational organizations to complete restoration of the entire site.

“The section of 45th Avenue West that Mrs. LeMasters has requested a vacation of has been in constant use by our volunteers, staff and the general public for every phase of the work that has been undertaken to make the preserve a very special part of Manatee County.”

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