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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2022 4 days ago

St. Johns River Water Management District halts sale of conservation lands

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The district was considering the sale of over 3,000 acres of conservation land in Volusia County.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. to include a statement from St. Johns River Water Management District Chairman Rob Bradley.

On the evening of Monday, June 13, local environmentalists became aware that over 18,000 acres of conservation lands managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District were being considered to be sold as surplus. Chris Farrell, of Audubon Florida had reviewed the governing board's agenda for the following day and found the item listed in the consent agenda. 

On Tuesday morning, June 14, the day of the Volusia County Council's growth management workshop, ECHO Volusia Forever Alliance chair Pat Northey and vice-chair Melissa Lammers spoke before the council and alerted them of what was going on with SJRWMD. Northey called it a "five-alarm fire." Over 3,000 acres of Volusia County conservation land — all of which formed part of both the Volusia Conservation Corridor and the Florida Wildlife Corridor was at stake.

The SJRWMD board withdrew the item from its consent agenda. And on Friday, June 17, SJRWMD Chairman Rob Bradley tweeted that the board "has no intention of considering the sale of District lands." 

"We are excited about potential land acquisition opportunities in certain ecologically valuable areas in our river basin," Bradley tweeted. 

In a statement to the Observer, Bradley said the board had discussed exploring the sale of district property "that lacked ecological value in order to use the sale proceeds to buy property with real ecological value."

"The memo and list from staff didn’t make that fundamental point at all," Bradley said. "Instead, the memo and list created concern from stakeholders, which is understandable. This is why I directed that the item be removed from the June agenda."

On Tuesday, June 21, the Volusia County Council voted 5-0 to send a letter of appreciation to the district. Councilwomen Billie Wheeler and Heather Post were absent.

The county had planned to send a letter outlining concerns about the sale of Volusia County conservation lands, but since the district abandoned the idea, County Manager George Recktenwald said a letter thanking the district for listening to them was more appropriate.

"They've agreed that if there was any effort in the future, that they would be involving all the stakeholders," Recktenwald said.

A map showing the list of parcels that were on SJRWMD's surplus list. They all resided within the Volusia Conservation Corridor and the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Councilman Ben Johnson said he spoke with SJWMD Executive Director Mike Register last week, and said Register admitted the district "had messed up" by putting the item on the agenda. The district sent two representatives to the council meeting, and Johnson acknowledged them.

"It meant enough for them to show up today and make sure everything was OK with us and we appreciate it," Johnson said. "Just remember that we're all partners, and let us know in advance." 

From Northey's perspective, the issue was mishandled. There are probably opportunities to surplus lands is some parts of the district, but the proposed list of lands in Volusia were significant. The list included 1,639 ares in the Heart Island Conservation Area in DeLeon Springs, 83 acres in parts of Longleaf Pine Preserve in DeLand, 1,073 acres in Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs, and 218 acres in the Lake George State Forest. 

"If you look at the map, most of [the lands] are connected, and it gives connectivity to animals and to plant life, which is important," Northey said. "It protects our water habitat and our wells. If you follow where the county and the city well system are, they're moving further out into the conservation corridor, so it's important that these lands remain in conservation to protect water resources in Volusia County." 

The alliance sees itself as environmental watchdogs, Northey added. After a conversation with Register, she also informed him about a list of properties that had been expected to be turned over as surplus to Volusia County 10 years ago, back when she was on the County Council, a transfer that never took place. 

With approval from County Manager George Recktenwald, Northey recommended to SJRWMD that the district do a reconciliation of lands to find out which were supposed to be under Volusia's management before any lands were considered to be sold to the private sector for commercial or residential use. 

Prior to the news that the district would not pursue the sale of these lands, Northey said that she believed the item was initally postponed because the district's partners and affected counties — Alachua, Brevard, Clay, Duval, Indian River, Lake, Flagler, Marion, Seminole, Osceola, Orange, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia — were unfamiliar with the process of for the sale of conservation lands and were not made aware a plan was in motion.

Northey said she believed in Register's vow to improve communications.

"I believe that Mike is sincere, that they understand they have to restore trust with their partners," Northey said. "And that conservation land is conservation land. I understand there might be different levels of value to it, but it was bought for conservation, so to take it out of conservation is a big step, and it should be done with lots of transparency and discussion." 

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