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Another prime buy rewards Land Trust’s patience

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of April 18, 2024)

When the Indian River Land Trust snagged a prime, 48-acre, lagoon-front parcel near the Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail in Wabasso in late March, it was the culmination of a 15-year effort and an illustration of the nonprofit’s land-acquisition philosophy.

“We take the long view,” Land Trust executive director Ken Grudens told Vero Beach 32963 last week. “We are here for the duration, and we know how to bide our time.”

The purchase also takes the Land Trust back to the origin of its land purchases along the Indian River Lagoon, which now amount to more than 1,200 acres and 12 miles of lagoon shoreline, from Sebastian to the St. Lucie County line.

“Our very first purchase way back in 2009 was a 1.6-acre piece that now is the parking lot and trailhead of the Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail in Wabasso,” Grudens said. “At that time, we identified the land we just closed on as highest priority for purchase to help protect the lagoon and preserve the county’s natural environment.

“The land is zoned for high-density residential and could easily have ended up being developed as a subdivision instead of being preserved.”

“I remember walking that land back in 2010, three or four months after I joined the Land Trust board, and thinking, ‘We need to get this,’” said Bill Beardslee, who now is chair of the nonprofit’s land acquisition committee.

“I recently walked it again and it is very satisfying to see our efforts come to fruition after all these years. It is a magnificent piece of property.”

After that first 1.6-acre purchase, the Land Trust kept a focus on Wabasso, gradually buying adjacent land to the north and south, aiming to put together a large tract for conservation and recreation.

“Having large contiguous blocks of land multiplies conservation benefits,” Grudens said. “It provides for better movement of fish and wildlife. It creates a safe haven and  allows for the potential of an extended trial system where people can enjoy nature and the lagoon environment.”

Just a month after the first closing, in December 2009, the nonprofit bought 6.7 acres of “environmentally sensitive land” to the north. Five years later, in April 2014, the group picked up two more parcels, one north and one south of the original purchase, totaling 30-plus acres.

Eight months later, in December 2014, they added another 11.6 acres on the south side of the conservation tract that was zoned for high-density development.

Six months after that, the nonprofit added two more puzzle pieces, purchasing 9.73 acres zoned for medium density housing, protecting the land forever from development.

After that, there was a lull for four and a half years, but the Land Trust was still watching and waiting, and in December 2019 five more parcels totaling nearly 39 acres were added to the growing preservation area, which by then extended from behind the Polish American Club north to a large block of lagoon-front land owned by Florida Inland Navigation District near the Wabasso Causeway.

But there was still a big, 48-acre patch of potential development land in the middle of the section that resisted acquisition for another four years.

“That land had changed hands several times since we first identified it,” said Beardslee, who has a long history of leadership in land preservation efforts, serving as chair of the Indian River Shores Planning, Zoning and Variance Board for seven years. Before that, he was appointed to a county task force that helped rewrite land development regulations to “try and preserve the character of the county that makes people want to move here,” reducing density and improving stormwater management.

The Land Trust made a run at the land in 2002 but were outbid by an out-of-state developer.

Then, the property went back on the market and the stars aligned for the Land Trust.

“When it came up for sale last November, we jumped on it,” Beardslee said.

With a purchase contract in hand, the Land Trust “raised significant funds over the winter,” and closed in late March.

“We are patient,” Grudens said, noting that the Land Trust only pursues willing sellers.

“The Land Trust’s acquisition of the property, which contains 1,000 linear feet of natural Lagoon shoreline, will create a nearly contiguous block of 150 conserved acres and protect critical wildlife habitat and Lagoon water quality in a rapidly developing area of Indian River County,” the Land Trust said in a statement.

“The eastern third of the property that borders the Lagoon is primarily mangrove forest. Both the woodlands and mangrove forest located on the property provide important habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife that are increasingly impacted by encroaching development along the Lagoon. In the future, this keystone piece of land could be used to extend the Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail, offering more opportunities for our community to connect with nature along the Lagoon.

“We now have a powerhouse piece of property there,” said Beardslee, who envisions a 2- to 2.5-mile trail system with benches and overlooks on the expanded property. “There is still one piece we need that we will eventually get.

The conservation power of the property is enhanced because it borders the 37-acre FIND tract to the north, which in turn abuts 22 acres of mangroves set aside by Pulte Homes as common area in its Harbor Isle development and protected by a conservation easement.

Together, those two parcels and the Land Trust’s still-growing block of preservation land total more than 200 acres of wetlands, mangroves, forests and meadows that will never be developed.

“I am very proud of what the Land Trust has accomplished, so far,” said Beardslee. “I’m loving this organization.”