By Erika Webb
Two acres in Tomoka State Park have been removed from a list of surplus conservation land the state wants to sell.
"One down, three to go," said Volusia County Councilwoman Pat Northey.
Money from sales of "surplus" conservation land throughout Florida would help fund a new conservation land-buying program, the Scott administration announced last month when a list of proposed surplus sites was released by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In Volusia, the list included the two acre-site in Tomoka State Park; 22 acres in Blue Spring State Park; and two tracts in Lake George State Forest, north and south of State Road 40, near Pierson and Barberville.
Council members learned of the state's intent Aug. 20 after DEP's Division of Land released the list.
The commissioners quickly went to work.
"I immediately began to research the sites and gather information to bring it to the attention of the County Council. I presented my information and my concern about the loss of property to the council at the meeting," Ms. Northey said. "The council agreed that we should immediately advise the state that we were requesting all Volusia sites be removed from the list."
At the County Council meeting Aug. 22, council members unanimously approved a contract with Orlando-based law firm GrayRobinson for lobbying services. Fred Leonhardt is one of three members of the firm who will represent Volusia in Tallahassee.
"He is the most well-known to the council as he previously lived and worked in Volusia. His wife has a business here and they own real estate in our county," Ms. Northey said.
Firm founder Charlie Gray lives in DeBary and owned Gemini Springs Farm when it was in private ownership, she explained.
"Charlie and his wife, Saundra, raised award-winning Santa Gertrudis cattle on the farm. Saundra is a former St. Johns (River Water Management District) board member," Ms. Northey noted.
Mr. Leonhardt has been tasked with making the council's concerns known to the DEP and will represent Volusia's interest in no net loss of public lands, she said.
The council has written a letter to the DEP Secretary Herschel Vineyard, outlining its position, and county staff also has prepared a packet of information that outlines information on and provides mapping of each site on the list.
"It is my understanding that Mr. Leonhardt has had conversations with the department and outlined our objections to key staff members," Ms. Northey said.
Blue Spring State Park in Orange City includes more than 2,600 acres of land. The 22-acre stretch east of the railroad tracks contains a county-owned section, at the end of Blue Springs Avenue, for part of the Spring to Spring Trail running from DeLeon Springs to Gemini Springs. Duke Energy has an easement there for power lines.
The site, which is comprised of uplands and wetlands, also is home to two protected species, gopher tortoises and scrub jays, both of which are listed as "threatened" species by the state. The scrub jay also is listed as "threatened" at the federal level.
Ms. Northey said she "put boots on the ground" and walked the sites in Orange City and Ormond Beach. Until then she didn't realize part of the two-acre tract in Tomoka State Park is within the city limits, and mostly underwater.
"I felt it was important to walk the sites and be familiar with each one in order to speak intelligently on the reasons we should retain the sites in public trust," she said.
The list elicited alarmed responses from environment protectors statewide.
Earlier this month the state pulled two of the largest chunks on the list -- at Oleta State Park in South Florida. They include a 15.4-acre slice of wetlands and a separate 129.4-acre mangrove preserve, a disappearing habitat the park was primarily established to protect, according to the Miami Herald.
"DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie defended the program, saying the state hadn't conducted a thorough review of land holdings in three decades and plans and projects have changed since many were acquired," the Herald reported. "Under the Scott plan lawmakers approved this year, he said, money from selling old parcels has to go back into buying new ones deemed more important now."
Ms. Northey was scheduled to walk the tracts at Lake George State Forest on Sept. 11 before the Sept. 12 council meeting where the council was to vote on a resolution to remove Volusia properties from the DEP's surplus list.
At Lake George. a three-quarter acre piece of land on the east side of Riley Pridgeon Road, about a quarter mile south of the intersection with Shell Harbor Road, and a one-acre site south of State Road 40 and about one mile east of Stone Road, have not been determined to contain gopher tortoise burrows or wetlands, but further the value of the adjoining conservation land, according to a report prepared by county staff.
"My position is no net loss of environmental lands in Volusia County," Ms. Northey said. "By any measure, boots on the ground or by scientific review, it is difficult to conclude how any of these sites do not meet the conservation values established for land preservation. They should be removed from the surplus list."