Some of the most prized and protected public wilderness in Orange County is likely to be given Tuesday to Orange County.
The St. Johns River Water Management District board is set for a vote to hand the county full ownership of 111 acres of Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park at the Econlockhatchee River.
On one level, it's little more than a bookkeeping transaction; Orange County already owns 50 percent of the 111 acres. More notable is that the county intends to turn the parcel into an active park, with access, trails and possibly a fishing dock.
"It's actually a very appealing piece of property," said Beth Jackson, program supervisor at the Orange County Environmental Protection Division.
Buying it was a coup, requiring years of purchases that began in 1992 and totaled more than $30 million.
It's now a jewel of flatwoods – a thin forest, with low shrubs and expansive views – that are pristine except for trails and camp sites.
At the fast-growing edge of metro Orlando, Hal Scott Preserve has no admission fee, bathrooms or anything at all to buy. Yet it's one of the most popular parklands of the 18-county St. Johns River Water Management District.
That anybody would give up any ownership of Hal Scott may have been unlikely until a few years ago when Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature ordered agencies to review their holdings and sell surplus parcels.
An attempt to do that by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection blew up early this year under pressure from wilderness and wildlife advocates who feared the department was planning to dump valuable lands.
But, proceeding separately in its review, the St. Johns River Water Management District held many public meetings and managed to largely avoid controversy.
After donating Hal Scott land this month, the district later this year will give up its share in thousands of acres of Volusia County holdings, including Gemini Springs Park and Deep Creek Preserve.
Ray Bunton, district bureau chief for real estate, said his agency opted to donate its 50 percent share of the 111-acre tract because of its location. The parcel is divided from the rest of Hal Scott Preserve by State Road 520, which makes it more difficult to take care of the smaller parcel.
No appraisal was done to determine a potential sale price. Whatever its value, the gift will include a "conservation easement," a legal requirement that the county protect the environmental value of the 111 acres.
That's fine for Orange County, which is likely to fold the land into its nearby Pine Lily Preserve and Long Branch parks.
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