New Trails Planned for Sarasota Co. (FL)

Sarasota, FL, 12/22/04 – Two former railroad corridors will soon be transformed into scenic trails for hiking and biking, part of a statewide trend by leaders in the land conservation movement and transportation.

Late yesterday, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit conservation organization, acquired from CSX Transportation Inc. a 12.8-mile scenic corridor that stretches from just over a mile south of State Road 72 (Clark Road) in Sarasota to the southern terminus near Center Road in Venice. The property was then conveyed to Sarasota County, which will convert the rail corridor into public parkland.

This is the second trail segment TPL has acquired from CSX Transportation in the past two months. The first was in Leesburg, in Lake County. TPL also is working with CSXT on projects in several other Florida communities, including St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, and Gainesville.

“Sarasota County has been trying to acquire this corridor since 1991,” said Sarasota County Commissioner David Mills. “These are exciting times. The Trust for Public Land has done a wonderful job and the community is really ready for this project.”

After more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to buy the land, the county commission in 2003 enlisted the Trust for Public Land’s help in making the acquisition a reality. With a year of work – legal and regulatory research, surveys, title work, environmental assessments and financial arrangements – TPL bought the land from CSXT and then conveyed it to Sarasota County.

County officials hope to transform the corridor into a major destination amenity and bicycle/pedestrian commuter link between Sarasota and Venice. The trail traverses two waterways, Shakett Creek and Roberts Bay, and goes through scenic Oscar Scherer State Park.

“The closing of this project is probably the most exciting time in the county’s entire trail program,” said Mills. “The Seminole Gulf Railway corridor is the linchpin in the county’s trail system. The corridor will tie together Venice and Sarasota, giving access to three public parks and several excellent trailheads.”

Leesburg Segment Adds to City Greenway System

In early November the Trust for Public Land completed its first land purchase from CSXT, adding a key trail segment crossing the center of Leesburg. The 73-acre property along 6.5 miles of former railroad right-of-way will give Leesburg area residents a new pedestrian and bike trail connecting neighborhoods, businesses, parks and other places of interest.

The X-shaped trail corridor runs through the heart of the city, adjacent to Leesburg High School, Fountain Lake and the downtown area. TPL will hold the property until public funds become available for the city to take ownership. Funding is expected to come from a combination of city funds and the state’s Florida Communities Trust grant program, according to Doug Hattaway, Trust for Public Land project manager. Based on an agreement between the city and TPL, the city is already leasing the property from TPL, which will allow the city to begin trail improvements including a paved recreational trail and rest and picnic areas.

Jay Evans, Leesburg deputy city manager, said, “The CSXT purchase is a major step toward realizing Leesburg’s goal of an interconnected system of trails and bikeways. This is the second segment of what will be a regional recreational amenity for Leesburg families.”

Evans said the Leesburg Greenway Trail is part of a major redevelopment effort intended to reconnect neighborhoods separated by large roadways and help preserve local historic sites such as the 1912 train depot on Palmetto Street. The Greenway will also provide links to other existing nature trails, parks and local cultural places of interest. Ultimately, the Leesburg trail will connect with Lake County and regional trail networks.

“We appreciate the work that the Trust for Public Land does to help facilitate the transition of property not currently needed for rail operations into recreational uses that benefit the local communities,” said Steve Crosby, president-CSX Real Property.

Greg Chelius, TPL’s Florida director, said the Trust for Public Land is working with CSXT on potential greenway projects in at least six other Florida communities. The idea of turning railroad corridors into bicycle/pedestrian trails gained popularity in the 1980s after Congress passed the federal Rails to Trails Act, permitting railroad rights-of-way no longer in use for trains to be converted to recreational trails.

In Tallahassee, the Trust for Public Land is working on an acquisition that will extend the scenic St. Marks Trail to the campus of Florida State University and ultimately connect with the Capital Cascade Greenway, an extensive recreation and transportation network throughout the Tallahassee region.

The Trust for Public Land has been active in Florida for 30 years, working with landowners, government agencies and local communities to conserve land and create parks and greenways in urban and rural areas throughout the state. Established in 1972 and based in San Francisco, TPL is the only national nonprofit working exclusively to protect land for human enjoyment and well-being. TPL helps conserve land for recreation and to improve the health and quality of life of American communities.