Last Modified: Friday, December 12, 2014 at 2:11 p.m.
Three ranches in Sarasota and Manatee counties were added to the state's conservation priority list on Friday.
Two border Myakka River State Park and would help buffer the popular attraction.
The third — the Orange Hammock Ranch, formerly known as McCall Ranch — is in North Port, and its inclusion on the state's Florida Forever conservation list has been questioned by city officials who want to see the property developed.
North Port leaders persuaded the Sarasota County Commission not to endorse the Orange Hammock portion of the Florida Forever application this week. The controversy did not stop state officials from moving ahead with the conservation deal, but it still has a long way to go.
Being added to the Florida Forever list does not guarantee the ranches will be protected from development, but it clears the way for more detailed talks with the landowners to see if a deal is possible.
“It's definitely a great first step,” said Debi Osborne, who helped put together the Florida Forever application as director of land protection for the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast in Osprey.
Osborne said the Conservation Foundation is still open to working with North Port officials or “anyone who wants to be a partner in these transactions.”
Finding a partner for the Orange Hammock deal is essential because the landowners want to sell the entire property and the Conservation Foundation only applied for enough state funding to purchase conservation easements on the three ranches.
The foundation will now look for public or private buyers for Orange Hammock. If a private buyer comes forward, ranching or other commercial activities that are compatible with a conservation easement might continue on the property, Osborne said.
A similar arrangement must be found for the Triangle Ranch in Manatee County. That property owner also wants to sell the entire ranch, not simply a conservation easement.
The owner of Sheps Island Ranch — the third property included in the Florida Forever application — is interested in a conservation easement only, Osborne said.
The three ranches cover a combined 7,564 acres and are conservatively valued at $14.2 million.
Triangle Ranch has three miles of frontage along the Myakka River on the state park's northern boundary. Sheps Island Ranch is visible from the main visitor area along the park's western boundary. Shielding it from development would help protect the visitor experience.
Osborne describes Orange Hammock Ranch as the largest undeveloped property in Sarasota County that “remains primarily in its natural condition.”
The property borders other conservation lands in the so-called Myakka Island region, and would add to the cluster of preserved properties surrounding the state park.
Orange Hammock was bought by a developer during the real estate boom and was once slated for 15,000 homes. That deal fell apart during the Great Recession. The property owner filed for bankruptcy protection and the ranch was claimed by the mortgage holder.
An effort to auction off the ranch in sections to private developers was unsuccessful.
Regardless, North Port leaders view the property as an important economic development opportunity. Most of the land in North Port is already subdivided into small lots created decades ago. Large properties that might be more suitable for commercial or high-end residential development are rare.
“If all the land goes where none of it is able to be used for development in North Port, that is a big concern,” said City Commissioner Jacqueline Moore.
Moore said she hopes city leaders and Conservation Foundation officials can work together on an alternative to completely preserving Orange Hammock. Foundation leaders said they are open to suggestions.
“That's a big piece of property,” Osborne said. “We're going to be talking to all the stakeholders.
“We understand that both the city and the county have interests and issues.”