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Donation protects land near lagoon from development

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of January 22, 2015)

The Indian River Land Trust has picked up a strategically important 11.5-acre property adjacent to the Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail.

“This removes the potential for commercial development at the site and buffers other important conservation land along the lagoon,” says Ken Gruden, the Land Trust’s executive director.

The $1 million parcel on the east side of U.S. 1 at 79th St. was a gift from Warren and Virginia Schwerin.

“We had been searching for years for a way to help the Land Trust when this opportunity presented itself,” says Warren Schwerin, head of Vero-based Oak Point Development Company. “We bought a package of land from the Kennedy family and this piece was a part of the package that lent itself much more to the Land Trust’s mission than to our development goals.”

Schwerin, a RedStick Golf Club founder, moved to Vero Beach from New York 22 years ago after retiring as president of Related Properties Corporation, a major commercial real estate development company. He is a member of the Land Trust board.

The gift closes a circle for the Land Trust. It is only a few feet away from the Trust’s first estuarine land acquisition.

“In 2009, as we realized we had an opportunity to protect the lagoon by protecting land along its shores, we made our first acquisition, which was actually a little 1.6-acre piece right across 79th Street from the Schwerin property,” Gruden says. “That [parcel that is the Trail parking area now] was the beginning of the Toni Robinson Trail. With this donation, we now have more than 50 acres of conservation land at the site.”

The property is open to the public, with a parking lot, walking trail and observation pier on the lagoon.

“The new land is not on the lagoon, but it is in the watershed, which makes protecting it important,” says Ann Taylor, director of marketing and philanthropy.

Along with other conservation purposes, the 11.5-acre tract serves as a refuge for endangered honeybees. The Trust plans to continue an arrangement with a beekeeper that Schwerin had in place that allows the keeper to place his hives on the property when they are not being used to pollinate citrus groves and vegetable farms.

The bees feed on the flowers of the Brazilian pepper trees on the site, making a tasty honey that supposedly has antibacterial properties along with a little bit of a peppery bite beneath the sweetness.

The Land Trust is an 800-plus 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 six-member staff and $750,000 annual operating budget.

Since shifting its focus to protecting estuarine acreage five years ago, the non-profit Land Trust has raised more than $8 million and permanently preserved more than eight miles of shoreline and 925 acres of environmentally sensitive property critical to the wellbeing of the lagoon.

The Indian River Lagoon, a brackish 156-mile-long waterway that stretches from Ponce de León Inlet in Volusia County to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County, is believed to be the most ecologically diverse estuary in the United States, supporting more than 4,000 species.

The transfer of the 11.5-acre Schwerin property to the Trust was completed on Dec. 23.

“It was a very generous Christmas gift,” says Trust Director of Land Protection David Heuberger.