Releasing a conservation easement on the gopher turtle poses a much more difficult process than that described by Rock Springs Ridge HOA
By Reggie Connell, Editor-in-Chief
When a parcel of land is surrendered as a conservation easement in Florida, it is usually a perpetual agreement between the landowner and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is designed to protect the environment and wildlife on this earth forever, so it is a difficult and expensive process to reverse.
In April 2002, Rock Springs Ridge, LLC entered into a conservation easement deed with the FFW. Now, in 2021, the RSR Homeowners Association is trying to sell the 51-acre parcel to a developer. The very nature of this transaction goes against the spirit of the agreement and clearly goes against parts of the prohibition document.
But Gary McSweeney, president of the RSR Homeowners Association, said the process would be relatively easy to accomplish. In an email dated September 29, 2021 to The voice of Apopka, he makes this statement:
âThe 51 acres of land include a conservation easement deed dated April 22, 2002, which can be reviewed and amended upon request from the state,â he said. âTurtles have been found throughout the RSR community and mitigation measures have been taken in the past to safely relocate turtle habitats as approved by the state as part of their application process. “
But according to the document provided by the FWF, this is much more difficult than just mitigating existing turtles.
âConservation easements are an interest in lands held for the public and for conservation purposes and are meant to protect those interests in perpetuity. However, when landowners request the release of conservation easements, board staff should use the following guidelines to determine if the release is appropriate. Applicants must provide compensation that provides a net conservation benefit. Following the guidelines will ensure that the rejection meets the requirement for a net retention benefit, minimizes risk to the agency, and is handled consistently with other rejection requests.
Sweeney also said in the same email that the HOA had previously received correspondence from FFW regarding the easement cancellation.
âThe HOA contacted the State Fish and Wildlife [FWF], which recognizes that any land owner can request mitigation measures to address the modification of turtle-like habitats located on any parcel once the proposed site plans are created during the due diligence phase of the process review and approval, âhe said. âA request to the state will be necessary if a project of conflict between development and turtles is discovered. At that time, the solutions will be evaluated and will address[ed] between the State and the promoter. If development on this plot interferes with existing ground squirrel habitats, such an application will be required.
A discussion thread obtained by The voice of Apopka dated August 16, 2021 between Michelle Chase, Board Member of the RSR Homeowners Association, Eric Seckinger, Biologist for the FWC, and Dr Katherine (Gentry) Richardson, Gopher Tortoise Program Coordinator for the FWC, confirms that there was correspondence between the FWF and Chase, and the HOA board of directors was given the terms to cancel a conservation easement.
Of: michelle chase
Sent: Monday August 16, 2021 12:07 PM
TO: Seckinger, Eric
Topic: Re: Easement Rock Springs Ridge
Can you send what is needed to cancel the easement please?
From: “Richardson, Katherine”
To: Michelle Chase
Cc: “Seckinger, Eric”
Date: Thu Sep 16, 2021 5:37:55 PM +0000
Subject: Subject: Rock Springs Ridge Easement
Please refer to the easement release policy language included in the attached document. We may schedule a site visit to inspect the proposed replacement habitat once we have received the required release application package from you.
Katherine (Gentry) Richardson, PhD
Gopher Turtle Program Coordinator
Habitat and Species Conservation Division
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Richardson’s email also included an attachment titled âGuidelines for Accepting or Releasing Perpetual Conservation Easementsâ.
But the list of conditions in these guidelines describes a much more arduous task that appears to either disqualify the 51-acre parcel or make the process of freeing the land so financially burdensome that it would put any development on prospect.
Among these conditions:
- Applicants must provide mitigation measures to permanently compensate for habitat / species impacts due to the requested conservation easement modification, even if mitigation requirements have been met for impacts on the species.
- The landowner should avoid development within a conservation easement unless no other practical and prudent alternative is available, and all measures to minimize impacts, as outlined below, are implemented.
- A request to release and replace a conservation easement must include a comparison of the social, economic and environmental effects of the alternative locations considered for development impact and why those alternatives were not practical and / or prudent.
- Landowners requesting the release and replacement of a conservation easement, or part of it, must demonstrate that the negative impacts on the land covered by the conservation easement will be minimized by reasonable measures, optionally.
- Ideal replacement properties are the same habitat type or habitat that supports the species for which the easement was originally assigned and are contiguous with the affected parcel or in the same FWC region as the easement of origin.
- If the request to replace or modify the easement is accepted by the FWC, monetary compensation plus habitat replacement resulting in a net conservation benefit must be received by the FWC in conjunction with the release / acceptance of the replacement. of bondage. The applicant will pay the CC an amount at least equal to the fair market value of the interest acquired in the parcel on which the linear or non-linear facility and associated outbuildings will be located.
- The applicant will provide FWC with the appropriate measure of additional land needed to offset the actual acres of habitat proposed for release. FWC permits may also be required if the proposed works are likely to have impacts on protected species.
- If the end result will not result in permanent habitat loss and the land will continue to provide wildlife habitat and corridors that maintain development and conversion prohibitions, the application must include a compensation proposal described in the easement. existing facility must also be modified, and the permitted future use of the linear facility must be incorporated into the existing easement. If the result results in habitat loss or an impact on wildlife, the request must include a compensation proposal. The existing easement must also be modified and the future authorized use of the linear installation must be integrated into the existing easement.
Despite knowing the hurdles it would take to overcome these stipulations, the HOA board of directors lobbied its owners on Oct. 4 to approve the potential sale of the 51-acre gopher turtle conservation area, and by a vote of 571-123 gave the HOA permission to sell the property.
And according to a letter sent to RSR owners with their ballots, there was a potential buyer for the property with an offer of $ 5.5 million.
Two days later McSweeney and RSR Homeowners Association attorney Kurt Ardman went to Apopka City Council with a revised proposal to purchase the city-owned land on Harmon Road which they claim , is a key plot in his quest to purchase the golf courses at RSR from Groupe Golf – owner of the deceased golf course at RSR.