BY JEFF SHEPHERD

DeBary is hoping two years of work pays off this year in its effort to bring 170 privately owned riverside acres into public ownership.

The city’s vision is a passive riverside park with a boardwalk and a water research-and-education facility.

“I think we need to have this done by the end of the year,” DeBary Mayor Karen Chasez said.

It’s possible, but it’s complicated.

The Volusia County Council will vote Tuesday, April 5, on whether to contribute to the purchase under the Volusia Forever land-conservation program. The city has committed to matching the county’s money, up to 25 percent.

And, DeBary’s application for funding from the Florida Forever conservation program is snaking its way through the state bureaucracy.

The Volusia County Property Appraiser’s Office lists the land’s owner as the Thomas S. Recicar Land Trust of Vero Beach. The asking price is $3.9 million.

Most of the land — 153 acres — is swampy. That part of the parcel is zoned Resource Corridor, and it is historically inundated by the St. Johns River. But 17 of the acres are already approved for development at a density of four houses per acre — and the City of DeBary hopes that doesn’t happen.

“The city will continue to work with staff of both Florida Forever and Volusia Forever to move the project forward through each program as quickly as we can, but each program has its own timeline and requirements that their staff must adhere to, along with the other projects they are reviewing,” said Shari Simmans, DeBary’s director of Economic Development, Communications and Government Affairs.

The property is currently being appraised by the state, one of the requirements Simmans mentioned.

On the day the state’s appraisers visited the site, Simmans and Chasez were among a group that joined them, along with other city officials, people from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and members of the press, including this reporter.

Also in the group was Dan Smith, a member of the board of the Aquatic Preserve Alliance of Central Florida. This private nonprofit organization works with DEP to raise awareness and educate the public about the importance of protecting the ecosystems of the Wekiva-Middle St. Johns and Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserves.

If all goes as planned, the Aquatic Preserve Alliance will partner with DeBary in the riverside park project, and hopes to build and manage a facility there, in partnership with the DEP, for research and education.

According to Smith, it would provide a much-needed base of operations and room to better fulfill the mission of the Aquatic Preserve Alliance.

“If this facility is built, there’s so much more we could do,” Smith said.

He said the alliance has reached out to Rollins College and the University of Central Florida, and plans to contact Stetson University, to discuss the opportunities for research and education that would come once the proposed facility is built.

To get to the property, the group traveled 1.6 miles west along Fort Florida Road, from U.S. Highway 17-92. At the point where Fort Florida Road turns to the north, the property is to the left.

The upland acres, primarily oak hammock, are adjacent to the road. This is where the research-and-education building would be built.

The acreage zoned Resource Corridor is further south and west, closer to the river. That part of the land is the part that really appeals to Mayor Chasez.

“When I was younger, I’d look at wetlands and say, that’s ugly, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I see the beauty,” she commented.

The tour group proceeded west, towards the St. Johns, sidestepping fresh cow dung along the way. Cows grazing on the land now are key to the taxable value of the property. Currently, the owners are taxed, according to the property appraiser, on a value of $6,089 — the agency’s $803,185 estimate of the market value, minus a $797,096 agricultural discount.

Five minutes into the walk, we approached a trail atop a manmade berm skirting the river. This is where the city officials envision a boardwalk that would give bicyclists and pedestrians scenic views of the St. Johns.

They pointed out a sandy bank that might someday serve as a place to launch non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and canoes.

From this berm, visitors have a broad view of the marsh, so the site would certainly appeal to birders.

“The Audubon Society did a survey, and identified 40-something bird species here,” Chasez said.

The land juts out into the St. Johns and is near an island, giving rise to its common names: Riverbend South or Alexander Island. There’s no official name yet for the park — if there is a park.

Simmans is hopeful.

“Given the unique assets of the DeBary property, and what acquiring it for public use will bring to both Volusia and the state, we believe the project should be top priority,” she said.

Volusia Forever projects: 

Doan — 4.3 acres — New Smyrna Beach, adjacent to Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve

Mazeika — 48 acres — Ponce Inlet, adjacent to the Ponce Preserve Conservation Project

Schroeder-Bowman — 858 acres — Osteen, adjacent to the Palm Bluff Conservation Area

Russell — 422 acres — Osteen, adjacent to the Palm Bluff Conservation Area

Baylor — 3,576 acres — Seville, abuts Crescent Lake Conservation Area

Stewart & Howarth — 1,954 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area

Stewart Family — 274 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area

CMM & CF Investments — 195 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area

Carter Volusia Land Trust — 1,339 acres — New Smyrna Beach, abuts Deep Creek Preserve

Frank A. Ford Trust — 1,200 acres — Ormond Beach, Bulow Creek State Park abuts the property on 3-sides and a portion is connected to North Peninsula State Park

Stonestreet — 368 acres — DeLeon Springs, abuts Clark Bay Conservation Area

Kirton — 332 acres — Port Orange

Deep Creek Reserve — 300 acres — Osteen, abuts Farmton Green Key Conservation Area

Recicar Trust  — 170 acres — across the river from Black Bear Wilderness Area, near DeBary

Lukas Nursery​​ — 160 acres — Osteen, abuts Wiregrass Prairie Preserve

Volusia Groves & Cattle — 128 acres — DeLand, Moore Lake

Sternstein — 71 acres — Oak Hill, abuts Canaveral National Seashore

Wisniewski — 69 acres — DeLeon Springs, abuts Clark Bay Conservation Area

Baker — 41 acres — Osteen

Penland & Pomerenke — 19 acres — Ormond Beach, abuts Riverbend Nature Park

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