Dr. Michael R. Bubb: Selling our parks to pay the bills
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.
The talk about linking the purchase of Glen Springs and the potential sale of conservation land to a wealthy developer reminds me of what my dad taught me about purchasing a new car.
Make your deal on the new car and don't let the dealer bring the trade up in the same negotiation, as you will always get the short end of the deal. This is why the purchase of Glen Springs and the sale of part of Loblolly Woods Nature Park should not be linked.
The process by which the state has elected to sell our future parks and recreation areas to pay our bills, as initiated by Gov. Rick Scott, is instructive. At the state level, public land managers have been asked to evaluate conservation lands to see if there are parcels that aren't meeting land-use goals. My expertise is limited to my experience on state land management reviews on behalf of the governor. These reviews identify land that might be considered for sale.
Land may be sold if a reasonable bid is obtained in an open sale or auction process. Where appropriate, conservation easements are required for selling of any land for which development could adversely affect our remaining conservation land. The policy has been thoughtfully developed, and each land sale has an open period for public debate.
While the governor is seldom confused with an advocate for conservation, an unsolicited offer for prime conservation land, such as the proposed sale to Nathan Collier, skips all of these basic review steps. It almost certainly would be considered illegal at the state level.
It is also instructive to look at the history of conservation land acquisition in our area. Lands nominated for acquisition go through a careful review process and receive a ranking based on their desirability for recreation and conservation. It is logical to assume that the 5.7 acres that are proposed for sale to Collier would have been ranked greater than 9 out of 10.
If those same 5.7 acres were somehow available for purchase in the past, they would have been a higher priority than any other land that was actually purchased in any local land acquisition program.
Loblolly Woods is uniquely valuable as wildlife habitat because of its size and location: 159 acres in the geographic center of Gainesville. Anyone who walks along the property is sure to notice the abundance of wildlife it supports such as Florida box turtle, deer, fox and turkey.
The property is connected to the main creeks, the natural wildlife corridors of our city. Habitat size and connectivity are the top priorities in land conservation, and a 5.7-acre addition to Loblolly Woods would have been the Babe Ruth of baseball cards.
Why does size matter? Why doesn't New York sell a slice of Central Park? The area of the rest of the parks in the central area of Gainesville doesn't even add up to half the size of Loblolly Woods. Besides being the cornerstone of our park system, large habitats have intrinsic value. Localized extinction occurs on fragmented habitats when the size is diminished beyond some threshold.
In the example of the box turtle, if the habitat gets too small, the females start wandering in search of a mate with increased likelihood of getting into trouble, as in getting hit by a car. Soon there are only lonely, sedentary, male turtles. The threshold isn't known for most species, so the actual environmental consequences of losing 5.7 acres of this property cannot be calculated.
Threat of development is another criterion the county uses in purchasing land. The biggest development threat facing Loblolly Woods is the certainty of construction of an 8-foot fence cutting off the corner of the park, like the one that currently surrounds the Collier property, which is the last thing that should be erected on a wildlife corridor. No conservation easement will reduce that threat once sold.
The 5.7 acres proposed for sale are very rich and unique. I have visited most every nature area in North Central Florida and have never seen an understory forest of the beautiful Florida red buckeye tree as dense as in Loblolly Woods. The abundant bluestem palmetto is indicative of an undisturbed habitat. Even more so, the very rare and distinctive spotted wakerobin seems to be located only in the 5.7 acres proposed for sale.
Note that one of the only other references to a natural community of spotted wakerobin as far south as Gainesville seems to be Sugarfoot Sink/John Mahon Nature Park, where the identification of this plant was a major factor that made the small park a desirable purchase in the Alachua County Forever project ranking report, even at the asking price of $2 million at that time.
So even though the property would be a major coup for acquisition if it wasn't ours already, what is it worth? The asking price for that land should reflect the cost of its replacement. A search for five to six acres of privately-held, contiguous, undeveloped, outstanding habitat with good wildlife corridor connectivity in the center of Gainesville yields nothing.
An attempt to come up with a replacement would be the purchase of the adjacent neighborhood of Mason Manor. With homes on 0.25-acre lots appraised at $100,00 to $200,000, the city would simply have to buy the southern half of that neighborhood and restore it to the quality of the proposed land for sale.
When I questioned landowners in the neighborhood, they were not keen on the idea of giving up their homes so that a wealthy developer can put a large land buffer between himself and ordinary citizens at the other end of the park and seemed unlikely to sell for even twice the appraised value.
Another way to value property is to consider how much money is saved by owning it. For example, the adequacy of drainage of Hogtown Creek under Eighth Avenue is marginal. The city spends a considerable amount of time dredging the culverts. As things stand, one of the most valuable uses of this park is as a recharge area for the aquifer. After a single rain, much of the park is flooded and the runoff under Eighth Avenue is slowed with both less volume and sediment because of that flooding.
Any loss of park land and drainage basin will imperil this balance. How many millions of dollars would it cost to replace those culverts with a bridge? Alternatively, consider the expense of building a new flood plain drainage basin. Once a bridge is built and the river channelized all the way past 34th Street, then a new area will need to be purchased downstream to handle this extra runoff.
How much would this cost? This is easy because we are now paying for the same thing for Sweetwater Branch. That restoration project costs $26 million.
I've heard arguments that the Loblolly Woods preserve was a gift, implying that a sale at any price is a good deal. Well hopefully you haven't taught your children that the value of a gift is in its cost.
Gifts can be precious; this one is the jewel in the Gainesville park system.
Dr. Michael R. Bubb lives in Gainesville.
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