Large plans, little funding for 1,900-acre conservation tract
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 8:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 8:43 p.m.
East of Hawthorne off State Road 20, a 5,500-square-foot home stands along a creek bed on a tract of rolling hills and live oaks.
This is one piece of the Little Orange Creek Nature Park, which covers some 1,130 acres straddling the Alachua-Putnam County line and stretching along SR 20.
There were millions of dollars in state grants available to buy this piece of conservation property but now there's little money to improve it for public use.
Representatives of nonprofit land conservation organizations are now lobbying county commissioners for tourist development tax money to improve the park.
Should county commissioners approve that request, it could draw money from other proposals — notably plans to develop a new county fairgrounds that would double as a venue for conferences, trade shows, concerts and other events.
Owned by the city of Hawthorne, the Little Orange Creek Nature Park would eventually be part of an almost 1,900-acre continuous tract of conservation property when linked with an adjacent 700 acres that Alachua County is in the process of buying from Plum Creek.
For each property, significant funds were available for purchase.
The nonprofit Putnam Land Conservancy obtained a Florida Communities Trust grant in 2010 and bought what is now the Little Orange Creek Nature Park from five property owners, Plum Creek being the largest, for $4.3 million.
The land was then deeded to the city of Hawthorne.
The purchase of the county's tract, which commissioners unanimously approved in December 2011, will cost $1.775 million. It will be paid for with the combination of a $1 million grant that the nonprofit Alachua Conservation Trust secured and $775,000 in county funding from the Wild Spaces & Public Places sales tax referendum.
But funding for the long-term management of the properties is less certain.
“Sometimes the easy part is the acquisition,” said Alachua County Environmental Protection Department director Chris Bird. “The long-term management is the challenge.”
For that, the city of Hawthorne will rely on two nonprofit groups, the Putnam Land Conservancy and the Friends of Little Orange Creek. Alachua County will rely on the Alachua Conservation Trust.
While purchased in separate pieces, these properties near the Alachua-Putnam County line have been eyed for conservation purchase since at least 2004.
The local history of the properties dates back much further.
Putnam Land Conservancy's Michael Stallings said the roughly 60 acres of Little Orange Creek Nature Park located south of SR 20 were a founding site of Hawthorne.
Around 1850, grist mills dotted the land. There also are historic cemeteries, with tombstones dating back to the late 1800s among the overgrown brush.
The Putnam Land Conservancy's plans for the property — where sandhill cranes, deer, bears, turkeys and a feral hog nicknamed “Hogzilla” roam — are ambitious.
They include the construction of a pavilion and the renovation of the home on site for a venue that could host events and also serve as a museum and environmental education center.
Stallings said plans include use of the property by school groups, artists and for the development of hiking and horse trails north and south of SR 20. Primitive camping also is planned, he said.
“We've got plans,” Stallings said. “We just don't have money.”
Advocates are seeking some $625,000 in tourism tax funds from the county at a time when commissioners have already made a 20-year commitment of funding from that tax, an estimated $12 million to $13 million, to go toward the ongoing construction of the Nations Park baseball tournament complex in Newberry.
The 5-cent tax raises millions of dollars each year. Each penny generates $650,000 a year; of the 5 cents, 2 cents — or $1.3 million — can be used for land purchases or construction.
The Alachua County Commission's current plan is to make a similar long-term commitment toward the development of a new fairgrounds off Waldo Road that could host not only fairs but draw in sporting events, conferences and trade shows.
In an email to the Putnam Land Conservancy, County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson doubted commissioners would waver from that plan.
“To be honest with you, I don't know that we will be entertaining any other projects at this time,” Pinkoson wrote. “We will be concentrating on trying to come up with a financially manageable plan to get the fairgrounds up and running and by doing so, it will utilize all the tourist development money for the time being.”
Stallings said the plan is to have the nature park open to the public by 2013. Without the tourist development tax money, private fundraising efforts would continue.
Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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