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.”

Pedaled Pete Returns

by Darryl Lang

Yesterday on the Trail, just north of Laurel Rd I took this picture of “Pedaled Pete.”

That is the name I’ve given this Gopher Turtle that I’ve been seeing on the Trail for the past two years. I named him Pedaled Pete because the injury to his shell is about the same size as a bicycle tire and if you look closely you can see what look like tread marks!

I haven’t seen Pete in months and was worried that his time had come. So I was pleasantly surprised to see him yesterday.  And he must have been happy to see me too because he  let me take a lot of close up pictures without retreating into his shell!

Refining Gulf Coast Trail Routes

by Roger Normand

TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority) held its second workshop of the year on March 29th in Sarasota with representatives of the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT), FDOT, Counties, MPO, and community advocates including the Friends of the Legacy Trail.  The diverse group met to refine proposed routes for the Gulf Coast Trail and enhance regional coordination.  This non motorized, off road, multi use trail will span from St Pete to Naples as part of the Florida SUN (Shared Use, Non motorized) statewide network of connected regional trails.  Updated maps are due to OGT by June 30 to compete for the next cycle of $25 million in annual SUN trail funds.

The most noticeable change in maps for the Sarasota/Manatee area is pursuing two alternate routes as the Gulf Coast trail leaves Hillsborough County and enters Manatee county: a Western Coastal Route would head west along the Willow Allentown Trail then south along Anna Marie Island and Longboat Key, returning to the mainland on the Ringling Bridge; An Eastern Wilderness Trail would head east then south along the Gateway-Greenway trail traversing county lands, through Babcock Ranch (a major new planned community east of I-75), reaching Fruitville Road in Sarasota.  Both routes would unite in Payne Park before heading south along the Legacy Trail, Venetian Waterway, and along Manasota Key Road.  Click here for a map of the proposed routes.

County Commits First $ To Trail Extension

by Roger Normand

To the delight of Legacy Trail supporters, County Commissioners committed $8.6 million to buy the land for a 7.5 mile trail extension. No previous funds had been identified. It was the first visible step in turning vision to reality for extending the existing 10.6 mile trail along an unused rail corridor into a multi-use paved path to Payne Park. Once built, the 175,000 annual users could quickly double as the trail reaches the urban core of the City of Sarasota.

The County Commissioners identified the funds during a March 29th day-long budget review session to align funds with established priorities for the County’s FY 2018 program. As Commissioner Hines noted, “The Legacy Trail is a big picture effort with broad county, public and private support. It is a priority, so we have to start building a pot of funds for it.” This was the second of six planned monthly budget meetings before the start of the new fiscal year which begins on October 1, 2017.

County Commissioners decided to use $0.9 million in available mobility fees, eliminate two lower priority proposed park purchases in the County’s Neighborhood Parkland Program ($2.6 million to acquire the Myakka River Oyster Bar site and $4.0 million for the Vamo Drive site) and commit up to $1.5 million in expected new revenue coming into the program at the beginning of FY-18 and apply these assets towards the purchase of the corridor.

While enthusiasm ruled the day, the County must still identify another $11.4 million by this December to meet the terms of the $20 million, Phase 1 sale contract negotiated by its partner the Trust for Public Land with corridor owner CSX Corporation.  This first increment would purchase the rail corridor from the northern end of the trail at Culverhouse Nature Park to Bahia Vista.  We hope the next several budget workshops will identify the remaining $11.4 million funds consistent with the Phase 1 terms.

Phase 2 requires another $18M no later than March 2019 to bring the trail from Bahia Vista to Payne Park and Fruitville Road.  The County estimates the total land acquisition and construction cost at $56 to $60 million.

The fate of the State Representative Gruters HB 2109 bill now in the Florida Legislature to provide $15 million for the Legacy Trail remains uncertain.  However, the $8.6 million signals the County’s commitment to extend the Legacy Trail, and will certainly buttress efforts already underway to attract other public and private funds.  We commend the County staff and Commissioners for making this substantial initial commitment for the Legacy Trail.

Optimism Reigns on the Extension as County Looks for Internal Funds

by Roger Normand

Amid a sea of unmistakable yellow “Extend the Legacy Trail” shirts filling the audience, endorsements from many public speakers, and having received hundreds of supportive, personalized emails, the County Commissioners began to consider how to buy the land to extend the Legacy Trail into Payne Park at a 15 February 2017 Board of County Commissioners meeting. The outcome left extension advocates cheering as the Commissioners unanimously directed the County staff to go find County funding options to more quickly acquire the corridor rather than await a county wide referendum in the regular November 2018 election, as recommended by staff.

A key milestone was a just-signed sale contract for the 7.5 mile corridor from owner CSX Corporation and its lessee Seminole Gulf Railway to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), who partnered with the County to negotiate the sale terms. The parties have been negotiating for nearly one year. Once ratified, TPL would in turn transfer the rail corridor to the County at the same cost. The $38 million contract price is split into two phases. Phase one requires $20 million by the end of this year for the portion of the corridor between the current end of the trail at Culverhouse Nature Park to Bahia Vista. Phase two calls for $18 million no later than 2019 for the remaining length to Payne Park. Though the cost is more than most expected, several commissioners noted it is 14 percent below the appraised value. There was no visible opposition to the price tag.

But where to find $20 million in the County’s $1 billion budget by this December? Possible sources mentioned at the hearing included bonding, mobility fees, tourism tax, and a millage (real estate) tax rate increase. In exhorting the staff, Commissioners noted “nothing is off the table,” “staff, don’t eliminate options,”the trail it is an investment, not an expense.”

Conveniently, the first of a series of budget workshops was held on February 17, 2017. The workshop aims to review priorities for fiscal year 2018, which begins on 1 October 2017. The Commissioners aggressively pursued funding opportunities. “We are scrapping for money here,” said Commissioner Hines in a theme that applies to all budget review processes, not just to fund the extension. Potential opportunities to free funds included revising Surtax III spending plans (the 1 percent discretionary sales tax that the state allows charter counties to apply on top of the 6 percent state levy), scaling back or deferring some capital improvement projects, accelerating the sale of surplus county lands, and levying up to a 10 percent public service tax that the state allows counties to apply to electric, water and natural/propane gas bills. It was noted that eight counties charge the full 10 percent on all utilities, eight change some portion, and four, including Sarasota, change nothing. It was further noted that Sarasota County has some of the lowest millage rate in the state, and has not raised the tax rate in over a decade. Moody’s has just raised the County’s bond rating, which would lower the County’s interest payments if it opts to raise funds via a bond.

While the Friends of the Legacy Trail remain an unabashed supporter for the extension, we don’t believe the County should have to pay for the entire expected $60 million land acquisition and construction cost. We firmly believe and are pursuing other viable funding opportunities from private and other governmental sources. But these other potential sources first require the County to commit funds towards the purchase of the corridor.

Thanks to all our Friends who supported the extension effort at this critical time. We commend the County Commissioners actions….and urge our extension supporters to keep the momentum going.

ACCIDENT ON THE TRAIL

HELMET SAVES WOMAN’S LIFE

by Darryl Lang

Around 10am on Monday, February 20, I went for a walk on the Legacy Trail. As I walked just north of Laurel Road, I noticed two women and a man sitting on the Trail with their bikes off to the side. I walked up to them and asked what was wrong and if I could help. One woman was sitting there with a bloody knee and looking dazed. They told me that the two women (sisters) had collided into each other while riding. Both women fell, but one hit her head on the pavement. She was disoriented and nauseous — the signs of a head injury.

We called 911 and waited for the EMTs to show up. The sister who wasn’t hurt, except for a sore arm, showed me the helmet her sister was wearing (see below). She hit the pavement so hard, the impact cracked her helmet!  What if she had not been wearing a helmet?  What if it was her skull that cracked?

The woman was diagnosed with a concussion, but is going to be okay.

They were casual riders, not going fast, just out for a short ride on the Trail, enjoying their vacation and never thinking one of them would end up going to the hospital in an ambulance.

People think they don’t need helmets on the Trail. They are just out for a slow, casual ride on a safe Trail and nothing will happen. You just never know.

This woman may not have survived her fall or may have been very seriously injured if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet.

So……PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE:  WEAR A HELMET ON THE TRAIL.

Friends of The Legacy Trail