The Monroe County Commission on Wednesday purchased 12,800 acres of sensitive wetlands to set aside for conservation with the support of a $3 million grant from the state of Florida.
The land is prime habitat for several endangered species including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Key deer, the eastern indigo snake and the silver rice rat, according to Monroe County Land Trust Director Mark Rousch.
"It is a substantial piece of conservation property," Rousch said. "We have been trying to purchase that property for several years."
The total cost of the purchase was $3.6 million, with the county kicking in $600,000.
County Commissioner Heather Carruthers praised the land authority's work negotiating the purchase. She called it one of the most important purchases of conservation land in recent years.
The properties includes tropical hardwood hammock, salt marsh and buttonwood wetlands, mangroves and submerged land.
The largest of the four sites is on the oceanside of Sugarloaf Key east of Sugarloaf Boulevard at about Mile Marker 15. The property's other three sites are located on the oceanside of Sugarloaf Key, Park Key and Saddlebunch Key, Rousch said.
The covenants of the purchase require that the land be managed as conservation land to protect and restore native plant and animal communities, and protect cultural resources and recreation, Rousch said.
The county commission took another step toward obtaining more funding for the future purchase of conservation land when it approved a $43,400 contract with Trust for Public Lands to assist the county in determining what conservation property it should buy.
Commissioners and staff are concerned that the county will reach buildout in the next 20 years and the county may face expensive lawsuits.
After the county uses all of its state-issued development rights, called Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) units, there will be roughly 7,814 vacant private parcels. County officials are concerned the property owners may file takings lawsuits because they could not develop their property. So officials are looking at ways to fund the purchase of some of those lands.