by Roger Normand
If all goes according to plan, by late December 2017 Legacy Trail users gazing northward from the northern end of the trail by Culverhouse Nature Park will be seeing County property signs atop the overgrown, unused rail corridor now owned by CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSX) and its lessee Seminole Gulf Railway L.P. (SGR).
Field work has been completed by the County and its partner Trust for Public Land on an environmental assessment, title review, and boundary survey of the Phase 1 portion of the corridor to Ashton Road. CSX and SGR are participating in the review. Efforts are now focused on analyzing the results, as well as completing the review of over 30 existing individual licenses, leases and agreements and deciding whether to continue, modify, or terminate each one.
Despite beginning with an shortened timeline, and the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the parties expect to complete the inspection review by 30 November 2017. Barring any unexpected findings, they will close on the property by December 20th, 2017, as provided in the sale contract.
Like the existing Legacy Trail, the Phase 1 corridor will be “railbanked” under the provisions of the National Trails System Act. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, “Railbanking is a method by which corridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved for future rail use through interim conversion to a trail.” CSX and SGR recently filed to formally abandon this section of rail corridor with the Surface Transportation Board, which has national regulatory oversight on railroads. The Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners approved on October 31st sending a “letter to the Surface Transportation Board requesting issuance of a Public Use Condition, designation of Interim Trail Use, including a Statement of Willingness to Assume Financial Responsibility in response to the CSX Transportation/Seminole Gulf Railway application for abandonment.”
Efforts are also proceeding to draft language for a planned November 2018 County-wide referendum that, combined with a broad public fund raising effort and continued pursuit of grants, will finance both the Phase 2 acquisition of the corridor from CSX/SGR AND construction of both phases to extend the Legacy Trail to Payne Park in the city of Sarasota.
The future indeed looks bright for a dramatically expanded trail network in Sarasota County.
by Roger Normand
Undeterred by the glancing wrath and ongoing recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma, progress continues to acquire the nearly 3 mile long (including a spur that bisects McIntosh Road) unused rail corridor to extend The Legacy Trail to Ashton Road.
The County and Trust for Public Land (TPL) have now initiated all aspects of their due diligence review of the property: a boundary survey; a title review; and concurrent Phase 1 and Phase 2 environmental assessments. The former consists of a review of historical transportation records, reported spills, and adjacent land usage for potential contaminants. The latter consists of a visual inspection of the corridor for evidence of distressed soil or vegetation along with prescribed soil sampling for common rail corridor contaminants. The contract specifies that all inspections must be completed by November 30, 2017. Costs for the due diligence review will be shared between the County and TPL.
The parties must also come to terms on what action to take on some 50 leases, licenses, contracts, or agreements which may encumber the property.
Settlement for Phase 1 is scheduled for December 20, 2017, subject to final approval and appropriation of funds by the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners.
The TPL partnered with Sarasota County to renegotiate the purchase terms with corridor owner CSX Railroad and their lessee Seminole Gulf Railway, consistent with available county funds: $7.9 million for Phase 1 to Ashton Road, due by December 2017; $30.1 million for Phase 2 to Payne Park and Fruitville Road in the City of Sarasota, due in May 2019. Funds for Phase 2 are contingent on voter approval of a planned referendum in November 2018. The Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved proceeding with the two phased approach on 29 August, 2017.
Stay tuned for further details as FLT gears up to celebrate acquisition of Phase 1 corridor, initiates a multi-phase fund raising campaign to help build the trail, and prepares to support the referendum. Reply here if you’d like to volunteer to support any of these efforts.
by Roger Normand
Legacy Trail supporters celebrated a major step forward to extend the trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota. On August 29th the Board of County Commissioners unanimously endorsed twin resolutions for a two-phased approach to acquire the approximate 7.5 mile unused rail corridor from CSX Railroad and to construct the trail. The resolutions authorize the County Administrator to proceed with the acquisition of the rail corridor.
The resolutions come on the heels of the Trust for Public Land renegotiating the terms of an existing sale contract consistent with available County funds. Deputy County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, who will become County Administrator in January 2018 when current County Administrator Harmer departs to become city manager of Longboat Key, was a key participant in the final negotiations. The new contract retains nearly all the same terms, including a 14 percent discount to the appraised value of the corridor, but divides the cost with $7.9 million for Phase 1 due by December 2017 to purchase the 1.7 mile corridor to Ashton Road, and $30.1 million for Phase 2 due in 2019 for the remaining approximate 6 miles to Payne Park and Fruitville Road. The County had previously identified up to $8.6 million in its budget for Phase 1, with plans for a voter referendum in November 2018 to identify funds to pay for Phase 2.
It was not without some drama. Commissioner Detert asked to pull the two Legacy Trail extension proposals from the 40 items included on the Consent Agenda expected to be endorsed in a single motion without further discussion. She then suggested delaying the extension decision until the 2018 budget and revenue expectations are finalized in September. Commissioner Maio countered that “I want to see the Legacy Trail extension done” and could not foresee the September budget meeting undoing that effort. Commissioner Hines agreed, adding that the extension will provide “significant economic value.” “I don’t want to to lose momentum.” Commissioner Moran noted that the agreement already provides the County an escape clause through November while they and TPL conduct the due diligence review (title search, survey, environmental assessment) on the property. The Commissioners asked for staff reports on the status on FL SUN Trail funding and a list of all federal and state grants that are available and which the County has pursued. Commissioner Hines concluded the discussion noting this is a huge financial undertaking for the County. “The public needs to support this with more than just with tax dollars.”
The Friends of the Legacy Trail thank the Commissioners for their continued unanimous support for the extension. We emphatically agree to the need to seek state, federal and private funds, and have been directly involved with past County efforts to do so. Those efforts have been stymied because the County did not own or even have the rail corridor under contract. We have also been working with local private foundations, and have developed our own extension campaign to raise private funds. We and our partners will be ready to launch a broad fund raising campaign to support the extension once the county completes acquisition of Phase 1 in December. We are committed to help marshal public support for the November voter referendum.
In the meantime, all Legacy Trail enthusiasts can savor another victory in the goal to extend the Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota.
Click here for the Herald Tribune editorial supporting the actions of the County Commissioners
by Roger Normand and Andrea Seager
The Friends of the Legacy Trail have learned that there is a verbal agreement to new terms between Sarasota County, their partner Trust for Public Land, and CSX Railroad and their lessee Seminole Gulf Railroad, to acquire a portion of an unused rail corridor to extend the Legacy Trail into Downtown Sarasota!
The new agreement replaces previously negotiated terms calling for a two-phased acquisition with $20 million for phase 1 by December 2017 and $18 million for phase 2 by 2019. The County had allocated $8.6 million toward the extension during 2018 budget review sessions earlier this year, but was unlikely to achieve the remaining balance by this December. They asked the Trust for Public Land to renegotiate the terms based on the available funds.
The revised terms apply the available $8.6 million to buy the portion of the rail corridor from the northern terminus of the Legacy Trail at Culverhouse Nature Park, over Clark Road, to Ashton Road with closing in December 2017.
Once purchased, the County can begin applying for development and construction grants, and Friends of The Legacy Trail and our partners can begin fundraising in earnest for the extension.
The parties are working to finalize the revised terms and conditions before submitting it to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for approval expected later in August.
Stay tuned for further details, including the specific date and time for the BCC meeting. We will need all Legacy Trail Extension supporters to show up in Commission Chambers in their FLT yellow shirts to support this land purchase!
For questions, please do not hesitate to contact us here.
The county has started work today, August 8, to relocate utilities where The Legacy Trail crosses Laurel Road. This work is being done in preparation for building a Legacy Trail bridge over Laurel Road.
The utility relocation work is expected to last approximately three months.
The Legacy Trail intersection crossing Laurel Road will be closed, and trail users will be detoured to cross East of The Legacy Trail at Mission Valley Estates.
For questions, call the Sarasota County Contact Center at (941) 861-5000.
Bay Street, which extends from Tamiami Trail to The Legacy Trail Osprey Junction Trailhead (see map), is going to be extended east, across the trail, to Honore Avenue. The Osprey Junction Trailhead will be closed for construction starting August 2, 2017 and lasting approximately 12 months.
The Legacy Trail will remain open for the entire length of project.
Starting approx. 8/1/17 the port-o-let will be removed from OJT/Legacy Trail intersection. In addition to this, all signs, picnic areas, kiosk and water fountain within the project corridor will be moved or removed and stored until end of construction.
Pedestrian access from the existing Bay St. to the Legacy Trail will remain open but watch for signage as a new temporary access trail will be opened to the north of the existing access trail during road construction.
Other access points to The Legacy Trail are (see map):
- Culverhouse Nature Park: 7301 McIntosh Road Sarasota
- Oscar Scherer State Park: 1843 South Tamiami Trail Osprey
- Laurel Park Trailhead: 509 Collins Road Nokomis
- Nokomis Riverview Park
- Nokomis Community Center: 234 East Nippino Trail Nokomis
- Patriots Park: 800 Venetia Bay Blvd Venice
- Venice Train Depot: 303 East Venice Avenue Venice
For questions regarding the Bay St. Extension Project, please contact Ferdie Barnard at Ferdie.Barnard@stantec.com; 941.225.7600
For questions regarding The Legacy Trail/Osprey Junction Trailhead, contact Megan Donoghue at firstname.lastname@example.org; 941-861-5126
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.
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.
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.
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