Lake County launches lands preservation effort, to save its slice of the “Old South.”

Lake County Commissioner Welton Cadwell takes the lead in welcoming guests to the grand opening of three of the county's new passive parks. The purchases were funded by a public referendum which passed in 2004. The ceremoy was held at Ellis Acres in Paisley, in northeast Lake County. (Photo by Linda Charlton.)

PAISLEY — It was a setting fit for “The Yearling,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic tale of a boy and his fawn, growing up in old Florida.
On Aug. 24, several dozen Lake County officials and lovers of nature gathered at Ellis Acres Reserve in Paisley to celebrate the opening of Lake County’s Public Lands Management Program properties. Shaded by a stand of ancient oaks, visitors heard County Commissioner Welton Cadwell discuss the program that funded the land acquisition, and the push to open the properties to the public.
They also heard former property owner Frank Ellis talk about his search, years ago, for a property that fit his image of “The Yearling.”
Ellis said his own personal reaction, when he hit the Umatilla/Paisely area, was simply “Wow.”
Speaking of the parks’ opening, Cadwell pointed out that “Back in May, the County Commission gave staff directions to open the passive parks right away. They had a very short time to get things ready.”
But they managed this feat anyway. The ceremony in August celebrated the opening of three parks: Ellis Acres, which contains 415 acres; The Pasture Reserve, which has 809 acres in the Green Swamp; and Lake May Reserve, with 136 acres in property located northeast of Eustis.
At this point, all three properties come equipped with trails, a small parking lot, and a single porta-potty.
Speaking of the facilities at The Pasture — which is located south of the town of Groveland, near Bay Lake — one local hunter said, “It’s a very nice porta-potty – as long as you are not trying to use it at night.”
The passive parks are open from sunup to sundown, and come with the standard instructions of “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.”
If you drive long enough, you’ll see a lot of undeveloped land in Lake County – particularly in the northeast section, where Paisley is located. In November 2004, in the midst of exploding development, Lake County residents voted to raise money to make sure that some of those lands stayed undeveloped. The extra tax that was approved allowed the county to issue $34,720,000 worth of bonds, the last of which matures in 2026.
The voter resolution, which passed by more than 70 percent of the vote, gave the county the authority to levy up to 1/3 mill ($.33 per $1,000 of taxable property) for 20 years.
The first of the nine properties purchased was the 18-acre Helena Run Preserve located south of Leesburg, which closed on Feb. 28, 2007. The last property that got purchased — Akron Meadows, which is now part of Ellis Acres — closed on June 10, 2008.
In addition, the county partnered with neighboring Orange County to purchase the 1,584 acre Neighborhood Lakes property in the Mount Plymouth area, and awarded two grants to the City of Clermont to help fund its new Inland Groves Park.
In all, the bonds allowed the county to purchase more than 2,000 acres in Lake County for public preservation.The Lake/Orange County property is not yet open to the public.
As Lake County’s public information officer, Kelly Lafollette, noted, “We are doing some pretty aggressive exotic plant control on the property.”
The Clermont property – which will have more amenities than the county parks – is not yet open. City Manager Wayner Saunders noted that “Since purchasing the property, our first phase has been to clean it up, get rid of exotic invasive plants and re-establish some native plants. Our next budget year, starting in October, provides funding for the first phase of development, with plans to have a portion open by next summer.”

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