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Land Trust hopes to save Shores habitat

(Week of January 20, 2011)

If the Indian River Land Trust can raise enough money to make it happen, a pristine 111-acre tract of wildlife habitat on the Indian River Lagoon will be forever protected from development.

The parcel at the west end of Fred Tuerk Drive, historically called Bee Gum Point, is now owned by The Estuary developers Roger Doerr and Doug Hazel under the name The Point Development LLC.

Actually two properties on the kidney-shaped appendage of land are being sold -- one called the Fred Tuerk Drive Extension and one called Mira-Mar. Attorney Jerome Quinn described the parcels in a letter to Shores Town Attorney Chester Clem as “lying between John’s Island, Bermuda Bay and the Town of Indian River Shores property to the north and The Estuary and Park Shores to the South.” It’s also directly across the Lagoon from the 14th fairway of Grand Harbor’s River Course.

Doerr said the property was the planned site of a 21-home development called The Pointe, where homes would be built skirting the Lagoon on the east side of the property. He would have accomplished this by mitigating the wetlands that would now be preserved by the Land Trust.

Considering the real estate market and the fact that Doerr said he’s ready to retire after many decades in the development industry, he and Hazel listed the property at $7.5 million with beachside Broker Michael Thorpe.

Doerr said he’s pleased that the Land Trust approached him to buy it.

“We promised the residents of The Estuary that we would never build directly across from them,” Doerr said. “This would keep that promise.  The residents and the Homeowners Association are very happy about the sale.”

Doerr said there are still a few technical issues to be cleared up with the title, and requests are in the works with the Shores Town Council and the Board of County Commissioners to vacate the formerly platted development on the site and easements set up to build a bridge to the mainland.

The Bee Gum Point property was once identified as an alternate location for a causeway before the new Merrill Barber Bridge was constructed.

As word about this pending transaction swirls around the Shores, residents have had concerns about what the land might be used for and who might be traipsing through the Town to get to it.

Right now, the property is fenced, gated off and locked with no access from the road. According to Indian River Trust Executive Director Ken Grudens, local residents won’t notice any change if and when a sale goes through.

Grudens said the improvements the Land Trust hopes to make would be designed to enhance the habitat by removing some exotics and making the property more conducive to supporting wildlife, not to provide for recreation.

“It would still be fenced and the gate would remain locked. The only time it would be open would be for periodic special events hosted by the Indian River Land Trust for our members and donors,” Grudens said.

Bee Gum Point is ecologically significant for several reasons. It’s a mix of uplands and saltwater marsh and provides important habitat for indigenous waterfowl and for numerous species of migratory birds. The acquisition and placement of this parcel into conservation is part of a larger plan the Indian River Land Trust unveiled two years ago to assemble a collection of nearby and, if possible, adjacent lands hugging the Indian River Lagoon.

“In January 2009, our board commenced the Lagoon Waterfront Initiative with a vision of protecting undeveloped land on the east and west sides of the Lagoon from the Sebastian Inlet to the St. Lucie County line,” Grudens said.

“It’s important to be able to protect lands on both sides of the lagoon,” he added.

Since its inception in 1990, the Indian River Land Trust has purchased 140 acres of environmentally sensitive lands throughout the county and has established partnerships to acquire and manage another 300 acres.

The Land Trust has also assisted property owners, mostly ranchers, in placing more than 2,000 acres of land into permanent conservation easement.

Bee Gum Point would be a milestone for the Land Trust, and an achievement its board has desired for some time -- to own and protect Lagoon shoreline on the barrier island.

In regard to the Lagoon Waterfront Initiative, this blueway-greenway concept increases exponentially the environmental value of the natural lands, giving wildlife free run of a contiguous stretch of area in which to live, breed and search for food, unhampered by any man-made structures.

The Indian River Lagoon Greenway on the west side of the river south of the 17th Street Causeway is part of this effort, as are others.

Grudens and the Land Trust staff identified the Bee Gum Point property using a database of computerized maps called the Wildlife Habitat Ranking system devised by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service.

Criteria used included size, water quality in the surrounding waters, abundance of wildlife habitat and proximity to other undeveloped, protected lands.

Bee Gum Point scored high in all those categories.

“It’s adjacent to Lost Tree Islands and across from one hundred acres north of Grand Harbor called Spoonbill Marsh put into conservation by the county and forty five acres next to that purchased by the Land Trust,” Grudens said.

The plans are there, the lands are available, but the biggest challenge right now in socking away conservation lands is money.

Much of the public dollars for this purpose has dried up, leaving organizations like the Indian River Land Trust to forge ahead with private dollars.

If locals want Bee Gum Point preserved and protected from development, they’ll have to help finance the deal.

“We’re excited at the prospect of being able to acquire and protect this property,” Grudens said. “If we don’t, it could go to development.”

Though the Land Trust can talk up the project to donors, Grudens said he can’t say what the purchase price is that he’s trying to come up with or how much has already been raised.

“At the present time, the way the contract is set up, we’re not really at liberty to discuss the terms,” he said. “We have had dozens of donors already come forward to contribute, many of those from the barrier island. It’s really been a broad effort.”

Several barrier island residents are active in the Indian River Land Trust and specifically in the Bee Gum Point acquisition.

John’s Island resident Ned Dayton serves on the board of the Indian River Land Trust and is also a member of the President’s Conservation Council of The Nature Conservancy. He has led the Lagoon Waterfront Initiative as a volunteer and is spearheading the campaign for the Bee Gum Point project.

Recently, Grudens, Land Protection Manager Ralph Monticello and Development Director Kelley Williams have been arranging boat tours of the parcel for prospective donors and have been raising the funds to close the deal.

“As with other tours and events that we’ve made available for members, we want to show them the interrelationship between the land and the water,” Grudens said.

Grudens said he hopes to be able to wrap up the sale soon. In a letter to the Shores, attorney Quinn stated, “We expect to close this transaction in February 2011.”

To further the big picture of the Lagoon Water Fund Task, the Land Trust is also applying for funding via the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

But the first opportunity to apply for those funds would be in March and then again in the fall.

“Financing is also a potential option,” Grudens said. “Land trusts have the ability, as private nonprofit organizations, and the flexibility to purchase property using several different tools.”