Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Living's Easy in a Place Not So Far Away; A Group Is in Need of Funds to Keep Parts of North Florida That Way for Years to Come

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Living's Easy in a Place Not So Far Away; A Group Is in Need of Funds to Keep Parts of North Florida That Way for Years to Come

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID HUNT

On the banks of Sisters Creek, Jacksonville slows down.

Boats drift, insects buzz. White ibises glide through the sticky Florida heat.

"Everything here, 360 degrees, will stay like this forever," said Mark Middlebrook, president of the North Florida Land Trust. "It will never change."

Throughout the Timucuan Preserve, smaller privately owned parcels perforate the federal-, state- and city-owned natural lands. Middlebrook's group is trying to bridge those gaps.

The group is studying the area and trying to drum up funds to make homeowners offers before developers do. A similar effort is taking shape in fast-developing St. Johns County.

In both areas, the goal is to promote wildlife corridors, keep surface water clean, and capture a piece of undeveloped Florida for future generations to enjoy.

Money may be a problem, though, as local governments and nonprofit agencies begin learning how state property tax reform could significantly affect funding.

St. Johns County Commission Chairman Ben Rich said land preservation is a concern as areas like the northwest portion of the county boom with growth.

"When we do have some breathing room in the budget, I hope this takes precedence," he said.

One area in St. Johns County under the land trust's eye is Nocatee, a 15,000-acre development situated along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Greg Barbour, president of the PARC Group, Nocatee's master developer, said roughly two-thirds of the area near Ponte Vedra Beach already is in preservation plans.

Setting aside lands in the development helps boost the quality of life for residents, Barbour said.

In addition to his duties with the land trust, Middlebrook chairs St. Johns County's land acquisition and management program. He previously served as director for Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney's preservation project, which set massive tracts of land off-limits to developers.

The current division chief for the preservation project, Nathan Rezeau, said the city supports the North Florida Land Trust's intentions to protect land.

Middlebrook said the projects in Duval and St. …

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