Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Major update on effort to save Fred George Basin

Major update on effort to save Fred George Basin

The Leon County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to purchase two critically important land parcels as part of the Fred George Basin conservation project. This marks the third and fourth out of five tracts that will comprise the 175-acre Fred George Basin Greenway.

Wildwood Preservation Society was formed in April 2006 to challenge a rezoning notice that, if approved, would have allowed reckless high-density development in the Fred George Basin floodplain, an area active with endangered wildlife and that had already suffered from nearby sprawl. Thanks to the hard work and support of many, many individuals and a coalition of concerned organizations, the heart of Fred George Basin has largely been saved. The Fred George Basin Greenway is slated to eventually open as a public park with low-impact recreation such as hiking trails.

Endangered wood storks in Fred George Basin, May 2009. Photo courtesy Rich Leighton, Florida Nature Photography.

Detailed background (adapted from Leon County Commission Agenda Item 38 from the Oct. 13, 2009 meeting): The Fred George Basin, located in northwestern Leon County, is made up of several parcels that contain developable uplands as well as flood prone areas, wetlands, and the Fred George Sink. The three parcels that form the core of the Fred George Basin were owned by R.P. Properties, LLC. (R.P.), the Maples family, and Christina Maples. The owners applied for a rezoning of their property from RA to R-3 in April 2006. Prior to the Planning Commission hearing on the requested rezoning, petitions were filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) by Wildwood Preservation Society founder Misty Penton, a nearby resident, claiming that the substantial increase in residential density would change the nature of the rural community, increase runoff in the Fred George Basin, cause flooding within some neighborhoods, and have a negative impact on threatened and endangered species in the area. Standing to challenge was found in two of the three rezoning requests (R.P. and James Maples). Due to an interest by the County to obtain the parcels, the rezoning requests were voluntarily postponed by the owners, and the DOAH hearing placed in abeyance, pending a decision on final disposition of the property.

At the October 10, 2006 Board meeting, the acquisition of the parcels was discussed under Commissioners’ time and staff was directed to develop an agenda request concerning this issue. The agenda item went before the Board at the December 12, 2006 regular meeting. After discussion, the Board voted to acquire the tract owned by R.P. Properties LLC, the most environmentally sensitive parcel, upon dismissal of the rezoning request, with the option to acquire the James Maples and Christina Maples property at a future time. In addition, the Board directed staff to seek Blueprint 2000 (BP 2000) funding for the acquisition of all three properties.

At the February 13, 2007 regular meeting, an agenda item concerning the proposed Fred George Basin Greenway went before the Board. After discussion, staff was directed to seek funding for the acquisition of the three original parcels and two additional parcels, the four-acre Schwartz property, located to the north of the original three parcels, and the 13-acre Cavanagh property, located to the east of the original three parcels. Staff was directed to seek the additional funding required for the acquisition by submitting a Florida Communities Trust (FCT) Grant application to the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

In January 2007, the County submitted a request to BP 2000 to reclassify the Fred George Basin project from a Tier 2 to a Tier 1 to obtain BP 2000 funding. In addition, the County requested that BP2000 utilize the funding originally allocated for Lake Jackson projects to the Fred George Basin project since many of the Lake Jackson projects had been completed by the County using other sources of funding. BP 2000 staff submitted this proposal to their Technical Review Committee (TRC) on February 8, 2007.

The TRC considered the issue and formally recommended the transfer of $2.691 million from the Lake Jackson project to the Fred George Basin project. This recommendation was presented to the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC). The CAC concurred with the TRC, and formally recommended the transfer $2.691 million to the Fred George Basin project and to begin the reclassification process necessary to move the project from Tier 2 to Tier 1. This recommendation went to the BP 2000 Intergovernmental Agency (IA) meeting on February 26, 2007. The IA directed BP 2000 staff to schedule the public hearing necessary to move the Fred George Basin project to Tier 1 and, upon the reclassification, transfer no more than $2.77 million to the project. At a public hearing on June 4, 2007, the IA approved the reclassification of the project to Tier 1 and the allocation of no more than $2.77 million to the project.

Concurrent with the process of seeking funds through BP 2000, the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department (Planning) and the Grants Program Coordinator, working with Wildwood Preservation Society, developed and submitted a FCT application for the Fred George Basin Greenway project. The application called for reimbursement to the County after the parcels were acquired through a voluntary negotiated transaction. The application was successful, ranking the Fred George Basin Greenway project 5th out of 110 applicants, and the County executed an agreement with FCT on January 15, 2008.

In order to expedite the acquisition of the properties, County staff ordered appraisals for all five parcels. Since FCT would utilize the appraised value in determining the amount of reimbursement to the County, the FCT process of appraisal was utilized. Two state-certified appraisers were retained, and appraisals were done for each parcel. A third state-certified appraiser reviewed the appraisals to insure accuracy, and developed a Maximum Approved Purchase Price (MAPP).

At its regular meeting of December 9, 2008, the Board approved the purchase of the RP property for $900,000, and allocated an additional $200,000 for environmental cleanup of the site. At its July 14, 2009 regular meeting, the Board approved the purchase of the Dan Schwartz property for $100,000. Both parcels have since been purchased.

With the purchase of the two newest properties, four of the five parcels originally planned for acquisition are now County owned. More than 160 acres have been saved to date. Currently Leon County staff is negotiating with the owners of the fifth parcel, a 13-acre piece that is predominantly flood plain and bottomland forest.

Egret chicks in Fred George Basin, May 2009. Photo courtesy Rich Leighton, Florida Nature Photography

Wildwood Preservation Society is a non-profit 501(c)(4) project of the Advocacy Consortium for the Common Good. Click here to learn more.

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