This November saw the hottest temperatures in the area since 1946, a record that may be the result of several Gopher tortoise sightings on campus, many of them close to the restoration area along the Dort Promenade. Although these tortoises may seem to be wondering around lost, they are not far from a 6.6 acre Gopher tortoise conservation habitat.
In the early days of 2003, New College of Florida (NCF) was in the midst of a divorce with University of South Florida Sarasota/Manatee (USF-SM). The USF-SM administration had the arduous task of finding an area of land to rebuild on that was close enough to the NCF campus for the students to have access to the still shared Jane Bancroft Cook library, Counseling and Wellness Center and recreational facilities.
The school quickly claimed part of the Crosley property, the location of the campus today. They soon found, however, that a large population of Gopher tortoises stood in the way of construction.
“When USF-SM decided that they wanted to build a new campus on the Crosley property several of us raised objections because of the Gopher tortoises and other special features of the coastal scrub habitat there, an increasingly rare habitat,” Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Julie Morris said. At the time, Morris worked in the Environmental Studies program. “We actually went ahead and filed a challenge to their campus plan and ended up with a legal challenge and a settlement that all the parties agreed to about setting aside an area of coastal scrub for the Gopher tortoises.”
There were multiple reasons for arguing against USF-SM building on the Crosley location. USF-SM is solely a commuter campus and so the lack of traffic lights or cross walks where students turn into the campus location was perceived as a danger. Further, the area allotted is relatively small for the USF-SM student population which now exceeds 4,000.
“There were a number of faculty who lived in the uplands and they weren’t crazy about seeing this habitat converted into a developed area, even if it was a college,” retired Environmental Studies director Jono Miller said. Miller currently resides in the area.
“These were very complicated times, we were sharing this physical property with USF-SM and there was a lot of tension between the USF managers and New College managers and so in some ways it was going to be better to be physically separated for everyone,” Morris said.
The Crosley Property was undeveloped at the time and Manatee County maintained a goal of conserving the Crosley home and grounds as a county and historical park. In the settlement, the area was split into two parcels. The county got one and the other was a 28.4 acre stretch of land where the USF-SM campus stands today.
The settlement required USF-SM to hire an Environmental Affairs Consultant (EAC) to track the number of active, inactive and abandoned Gopher tortoise burrows. The EAC found 20 active and 12 inactive burrows during the 2003 survey. However, it was not as simple as mapping out burrows and relocating tortoises to a safe area before construction.
The state does not give out permits to relocate a population if a representative number of the population contains disease.
“[The EAC staff] tested six tortoises for upper respiratory track disease (URTD) and they were all positive for that,” Morris stated. “If they’d been healthy they could’ve trapped them and taken them to a larger mitigation bank. The best option then was to relocate them on the site.”
The settlement then required them to maintain 6 acres of coastal scrub along with eco-tunnels where necessary for the tortoises to use. A total of 11 active burrows were filled in and built over after the tortoises residing in them were relocated to the assigned conservation area.
Before the settlement, the Crosley property was used as an ongoing research site and viewed as a restoration area.
“When I worked in the Environmental Studies program as coordinator and then director, there were two students who focused their senior thesis research on the Crosley property, which was then part of the shared campus of USF Sarasota Manatee [and New College],” Morris said. “I would spend time with both of them in the field mapping and graphing Gopher tortoise burrows.”
One of these thesis students was Environmental Studies AOC Emily Mann. The overarching goal stated in her thesis was “to provide a representation of all coastal scrub sites that existed in the region prior to development, so that future restoration efforts will have a record of what coastal scrub in this region was like.”
“[NCF students] were very concerned about the Gopher tortoises particularly, especially students who had started doing research projects on the property or had used it as a field site for environmental studies classes,” Morris said.
Objectors to the Master Plan for USF-SM were not limited to NCF students, staff and faculty but included a number of the area’s residents and members of environmental organizations such as the Sarasota/Manatee Sierra Club.
“I was giving presentations to various local environmental groups (Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Florida Native Plant Society, Manasota 88) to garner support for our challenge of the USF development of the sensitive area,” nearby resident Glenn Cuomo said.
An article was written by Chairwoman of the Sarasota Sierra Club Gayle Reynolds expressing opposition to the plan. An editorial regarding the conflict was written by the Catalyst Staff and released in the Feb. 19 2003 issue. The editorial asked “when the campus needs to expand again, where will it go?”
This question echoes today as students and administration at USF-SM prepare for spatial growth in the release of the 2025 Master Plan in October of this year. The Master Plan includes a potential expansion of almost 168,000 gross square feet.
“USFSM has adequate campus property for our proposed 10-year growth,” Director of Facilities Planning & Management Rick Lyttle said in an email interview. “Additionally, we have identified property acquisition requests along Tamiami Trail to support campus growth.”
“Just by neglect, if you don’t maintain grassy, low growing plants they will overgrow and harm the tortoises,” Miller said.
Lyttle stated that none of the planned buildings are located in the conservation areas and explained that “USFSM maintains the conservation areas regularly through walking inspections to remove debris and inspect for damages.”
USFSM has not performed a recent census or condition assessment of the tortoises,” Lyttle said. “I am in the process of soliciting proposals from environmental consultants to perform those services and anticipate we will have that effort completed in December or early next year,” he added.
“There are plans in the making to use [the conservation area] essentially as an outdoor classroom for the biology program,” USF-SM Professor of Chemistry Edie Banner said.
The 2025 USF-SM Master Plan includes goals to “preserve and protect existing natural resource areas including conservation areas adjacent to US 41” and others such as “planting and reclamation of native plant communities.”