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Land Trust hoping to seal a major lagoon land purchase

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of March 15, 2012)
Photo: Ken Grudens and Ann Taylor of Indian River Land Trust.

The Indian River Land Trust is closing in on a major waterfront land purchase that if completed will preserve 150 acres of critical habitat and forever save a  mile and a half of  lagoon shoreline from development.

“There are a number of high-priority parcels north of the Barber Bridge we would like to acquire to protect the scenic beauty and water quality of the lagoon,” says Land Trust Executive Director Ken Grudens. “This is one of those tracts. We hope to close on the land within the next few weeks.”

The Land Trust is an 800-member organization guided by a 17-member board of directors that focuses on preserving environmentally important land and water resources, protecting scenic waterfront areas and providing access for public recreation and education. It has a five-member staff and $400,000 annual operating budget.

The purposed purchase is part of a startlingly successful campaign of waterfront land acquisition begun by the organization in 2009 that has conserved 435 acres and more than four miles of shoreline in the past two years.

The trust does not want to disclose the exact location at this time because the purchase is still being negotiated.

“In 2008, our board recognized we had a historic opportunity to protect the lagoon and habitat near it,” says Grudens. “Because of the real estate downturn and failed developments along the water, extraordinary pieces of land were potentially available for conservation that would have been out of reach before.”

According to Grudens, the board mobilized and “put together an all-out effort to look at properties along the lagoon and strategically determine which were most important to preserve.”

The first phase of the effort was a mapping and feasibly study funded by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to identify all undeveloped parcels along the lagoon within Indian River County and prioritize them for acquisition based on their ecological importance and likelihood of availability.

Since development approval and permits add value to land, property without those features drifted toward the top of the list, but the Trust’s Director of Land Protection Ralph Monticello also pursued permitted parcels that looked promising.

His efforts paid off in a big way last fall when he negotiated the purchase of what is now called the South Vero Conservation Land.

“It is a 185-acre parcel of tropical oak hammocks, wetlands and ponds with a mile of lagoon shoreline,” says Grudens. “The land had been permitted for 545 homes but the project failed during the real estate collapse and the property went back to the bank.”

The owners of the property turned down a $10 million offer during the boom, when Indian River County tried to buy it for conservation purposes. In a depressed market, Monticello was able to close on the foreclosed land for $1.6 million.

“It was the only unprotected piece of waterfront land in the county still in such a pristine natural state,” says Monticello. “It has never been farmed or cattled. There are 100-foot-tall palms and mature oak hammocks with trees like you see on the sandy streets in Old Riomar.”

“There is a once-in-a lifetime window of opportunity right now to preserve remaining natural lands along the lagoon in Indian River County,” says Grudens.

“The Indian River Lagoon is the heart of this community,” says Land Trust Director of Development Ann Taylor. “It has made Vero Beach what it is today. By protecting land along the edge from development we protect the lagoon.”

Preserving wetlands, mangrove thickets and other natural waterside areas protects the lagoon by filtering water that enters the estuary and preventing the kind of polluted runoff that comes from shore-side development. It also provides critical habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife.

“We are not anti-development,” says Grudens. “We don’t work to stop specific projects. We just look at what is out there strategically and try to save what we can wherever possible.”

The Land Trust has raised $7 million in private donations and bought and preserved six major tracts of waterfront land so far. 

That success follows a series of earlier conservation accomplishments by the organization, which was founded in 1990 to help save McKee Botanical Gardens, a 10-year, $10-million project.

Following that successful endeavor, the Land Trust was instrumental in preserving 2,000 acres of agricultural land from development. 

In 2004, it led the effort to pass a $50-million land and water protection bond issue referendum that was approved by 67 percent of voters, enabling the county to buy a number of properties for conservation.

With land prices skyrocketing, the county rushed to buy property before it became still more expensive and ended up spending the $50 million at or near the peak of the boom.

The land trust wants to get all the land it can while prices remain at generational lows.

“We don’t know how long this opportunity will last,” says Grudens. “Nobody has that crystal ball. But we are seeing more development interest and other signs the window may be starting to close so we are intently focused on acquisition.

“People don’t pick Vero Beach and Indian River County,” says Taylor. “This place picks people.  The quality of life that draws people here is heavily dependent on the lagoon and all the natural beauty and that is what we want to preserve.”