The property known as the Southworth Tract has been approved for purchase by the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s (District) Governing Board. The 589-acre parcel of land is located within the Weekiwachee Preserve on the south side of Osowaw Boulevard at its intersection with Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando County.
According to a statement from the District, “The parcel is being purchased for approximately $4.6 million with funds from the Florida Forever Trust Fund. Acquisition of the Southworth Tract is consistent with the District’s Florida Forever Workplan, and the property has been identified in the work plan for acquisition since 1997.”
While the District owns all of the land within the current Weekiwachee Preserve, there are a few public ownership parcels not owned by the District within the broader Weekiwachee Preserve project area consisting of roughly 24,445 acres. Currently there are 2160 acres in the larger 24,445-acre Project area that are in public ownership and not owned by the District.
The project area was established in 1991 with approval from the Governing Board. The District has acquired 13,000 acres within the project area to date.
A District statement further explains, “The project was initiated to specifically protect estuarine marshes and lowlands; preserve and/or restore natural ecosystems and their functions; maintain and/or improve water quality; improve water conveyance; protect habitats and associated wildlife resources; prevent encroachment onto the floodplain; and preserve the aesthetic value of the lands within the project.”
The Southworth Tract was acquired by George L. Southworth in 2003 and later into a revocable trust. In 2016, Southworth proposed creating a mitigation bank with 367 of the acres. George L. Southworth is the President of Concrete Impressions of Florida lnc., specializing in the installation of sound wall barriers along highways.
According to the District, the purchase of this property made up of natural habitat and timberland “will allow the District to substantially complete the Weekiwachee Preserve Project by connecting seven District-owned parcels. This acquisition meets all four of the District’s Areas of Responsibility, which are water supply, water quality, flood control and natural systems. In addition, the project is consistent with the Governor’s direction for protecting Florida’s springs, water bodies and natural systems.”
“This is a significant acquisition that will not only conserve 589 acres of land in the Weeki Wachee Springshed but will also help protect and maintain good water quality across the nearshore coastal waters of the Springs Coast, which is home to one of the largest seagrass habitats in the world,” said Brian Armstrong, the District’s executive director.
“This property purchase is part of the long-term, overall conservation picture of Florida,” said John Mitten, District Governing Board member. “The opportunity to link this property with the others we already manage fits the strategy and is the missing piece in the puzzle.”
With this purchase, the District aims to protect water resources and minimize flood risks. They also say the purchase will provide the following benefits:
- Completes the conservation and protection of the Indian Creek watershed, which is an important local source of fresh water to the coastal estuary.
- The majority of the property falls within a springs protection area.
- Provides enhanced protection of natural systems, including a spring, tidal creeks, and forested wetlands in the area.
- Supports protection and maintenance of water quality across the nearshore coastal waters, which includes one of the largest seagrass habitats in the world.
Additionally, the acquisition serves to “protect portions of the Florida Wildlife Corridor in southwestern Hernando County and provides important wildlife habitat,” the District states.
The Southworth Tract is located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor identified within the Nature Coast Critical Linkages. Gov. DeSantis signed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in July. “Through various monetary incentives, the act is intended to prevent the fragmentation of wildlife habitats, safeguard clean water and air, protect agricultural lands from development and allow for continued recreational access to natural areas,” explains Riley Gonzalez of The University of Florida’s Thompson Earth Systems Institute. The act secured $400 million in funding to protect roughly 17.9 million interconnected acres of natural habitat as well as ranch and timberland.
“This is a great purchase of a highly significant coastal wildlife corridor property,” stated Charles Lee, Director of Advocacy of Audubon Florida. “Because of its location just west of US 19 in a rapidly developing area of Hernando County, this tract was destined for development had the District not acted quickly. It is a great relief to know it will now be preserved.”