Is $8.6 Million Enough?

by Roger Normand

The $8.6 million identified so far by the County is well short of the $20 million required by December 2017, as negotiated for the first acquisition phase.  It also appears increasingly unlikely that the rest of the $20 million will be secured in time.  So the question to extend the Legacy Trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota becomes:  Is $8.6 million enough for the parties to renegotiate and CSX to sell a shorter than planned segment of their unused rail corridor to Sarasota County?  The parties must quickly decide whether or not to proceed as the County and the Trust for Public Land need about six months to conduct their due diligence review of the property before the planned December purchase.

TPL, partnering with the County, came to terms to acquire the 7.5 mile long corridor and spurs from owner CSX and their lessee, Seminole Gulf Railroad, in February 2017 for $38 million.  That amount was split into two phases: Phase 1 from Culverhouse Nature Park to Bahia Vista for $20 million by December 2017; Phase 2 to Payne Park for $18 million by March 2019.  The due diligence includes conducting a hazardous materials environmental assessment, title search, and boundary survey.

Despite the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) directing the County Administrator to begin efforts to acquire the corridor in April 2015, no funding was included in the County budget to support the purchase.  The BCC began in mid February 2017 to grapple with funding options, and in mid March reprioritized $8.6 million in existing and expected 2018 County Parkland acquisition funds to apply towards buying the unused rail corridor.  However subsequent BCC meetings have identified no further funds.

While there are still a number of planned BCC budget meetings before the start of FY-18 on October 1st, there appear to be few attractive opportunities for marshaling substantial more funds for the extension.  The BCC has discussed tax increases on utility services and the county millage rate, both already at or near the lowest rates among Florida counties, to fund new initiatives including extending the Legacy Trail.  But even if enacted, revenue would not be received in time to be included in the December payment to CSX.  Bonding for the December payment is no longer an option, as the County attorney has ruled that bonding on the phase 1 acquisition would preclude the option to bond again for the second acquisition phase.

Representative Joe Gruter’s bill in Tallahassee to provide $15 million for the Legacy Trail failed to garner support from this year’s State Legislature.  Efforts by several local foundations to quietly pursue private donations from wealthy trail supporters remains a work in progress.  An Operating agreement between the County and The Friends of Legacy Trail which includes fundraising authority remains in review by the County staff, and must still be approved by the BCC.

We hope the parties agree to promptly and equitably revise the sale terms to acquire $8.6 million worth of the extension, and the County and TPL proceed with its due diligence to meet the December planned settlement.  We remain firm in our conviction that other governmental and private funds will materialize AFTER the County owns some segment of the extension.  The Friends of the Legacy Trail are developing and, once acquired, will be ready to launch a number of fund raising and promotional efforts to support the extension.  A possible November 2018 voter referendum could provide the balance of land acquisition and construction funds.

Trimming the Trail

by Roger Normand

Sarasota County began mowing the sides of the trail this week.  In this subtropical climate, it doesn’t take long for vegetation to rapidly encroach onto the pavement, or for roots to undermine the asphalt.  The County is using what can only be described as One Mean Mowing Machine, with an articulating sidearm mower deck than can reach the edges of the raised trail surface.  A flagger vehicle accompanies the mower to ensure trail closure.  The mowing operation carefully avoids previously marked areas denoting the location of gopher tortoise burrows.   Debris is blown off the trail after mowing is completed on each trail segment. The mowing operation is expected to extend through at least June 2.  Stay tuned for updates.

After the Fire, Rejuvenation

by Roger Normand

The Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) palm is a common sight along the Legacy Trail.  Features include thickened trunks growing horizontally along the ground, a stalk with sharp saw-like “teeth,” and a rounded fan of long, narrow leaves. It is a classic native Florida plant: drought and fire tolerant, growing in sandy soils.  In these pictures taken along the trail in Oscar Scherer State Park, the trunk still shows charred evidence of the prescribed burn conducted late last fall, yet the plants are thriving while any invasive plants are gone.

A little research revealed that these plants are very long lived (The Smithsonian reports some specimens may be 700 years old).  The grape-like fruit is an important food source for many animals, including the gopher tortoise, and the plants provide cover for a wide variety of wildlife, including the threatened Florida scrub jay.  The Saw Palmetto extract has a long history as an alternative medicine, most recently to prevent of treat prostate issues in men, though its therapeutic benefits have not been validated in scientific studies.

Protecting Gopher Tortoises & Their Burrows

by Roger Normand

Sarasota County is marking gopher tortoise burrows along the trail in preparation for side-arm mowing the sides of the trail.  The yellow caution tape serves to warn  the mower operator of a nearby burrow and potential nearby turtles.  A particular concern is the weight of the mower potentially collapsing the burrow and trapping the inhabitants.  Gopher tortoises are listed as a Threatened Species in Florida, and both the tortoise and borrow are protected under state law.  These land dwelling reptiles dig a network of borrows up to ten feet deep and 40 feet long, which they share with more than 350 other species!  Interestingly, these herbivores “prune” the plants they eat, usually leaving a healthy plant to regrow.

Please be respectful of wildlife.

Photos courtesy of Megan Donoghue & Roger Normand

FLT Donates Trail Counter to County

by Steve Martin

Friends of The Legacy Trail has donated a new, more accurate, trail counter to the County Parks Department to monitor traffic on The Legacy Trail.  Pictured, Jon Robinson, Division Manager, Natural Area Parks, Preserves and Trails (left), receives the counter from John League, President, Friends of The Legacy Trail (right).

FLT has performed two surveys in the past year to evaluate trail usage and user characteristics.  The results of these surveys and analysis were recently used to increase the calculated trail usage from 120,000 to 175,000 users per year.  Another finding from these surveys was that the currently-used trail counters are significantly under-counting trail usage.  An investigation of alternative counting devices and technology led to the selection of the more accurate Eco-Counter device donated by FLT to the county.

Having accurate data to demonstrate the popularity of The Legacy Trail is very important in seeking financial support for the trail and the trail extension to Sarasota.  This activity is currently being performed by both the County Parks Department (Thanks Megan!) and members of FLT.    In the trail business the saying is “If we don’t count, we don’t get counted.”