The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 13 No. 26 - April 10, 2013

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Special places: Joan M. Durante Park

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Rusty chinnis | submitted
Joan Durante Park on Longboat Key is a coastal hammock
that features a classic example of restored wetlands.

A slight turn off the bike path along Gulf of Mexico Drive and we were suddenly immersed in a world of quiet shell strewn lanes that meandered through live oaks and a plethora of native Florida species. Slowly the hum of traffic subsided and the sounds of songbirds filled the air. The fragrance of roses and frangipani mixed with a tinge of salt air as we peddled into a mangrove forest bisected with tidal lagoons and teaming with wading birds.

We had entered Joan Durante Park, what I like to call the real Florida, a coastal hammock that features a classic example of restored wetlands. These fertile habitats enhance the natural productivity of our estuaries and ultimately the fishery for which the area is famous. 

Manatee County has done a remarkable job of preserving and improving the natural areas it is blessed with. Many of these areas include coastal wetlands that are critical to the local environment. The more people that find, experience and enjoy these areas, the more momentum there will be to continue these efforts into the future. These special places show firsthand the remarkable resilience of the natural world and its ability to rebound from years of abuse and neglect. Joan Durante Park is one of this area’s special places. 

Located at 5550 Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key, Joan Durante Park is a wonderful example of a public, private partnership that developed from a far-sighted town commission, a developer, a man wanting to honor the memory of his late wife as well as a diverse collection of other donors.

Additional funds and materials that made the park possible were donated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

The 32-acre park was acquired in the late 80s from a developer in exchange for added density on a condominium project. In 1994 a private donor, James Durante, approached the town with an offer of $750,000 to develop the land into a park. The town agreed after several months of negotiations to commence the first phase of the park which was completed in 1995. During the initial restoration all invasive species were removed, and native vegetation including red oak, live oak, several species of mangroves, sea grape, gumbo limbo and wax myrtle were planted.

In addition to the restored uplands, they also enhanced and refurbished tidal lagoons, transitional wetlands, coastal hammock, and bay bottom. Additionally, a variety of understory species were also planted to stabilize and enhance the new coastal dune and wetland areas.

Amidst all this natural beauty, you can also find a children’s playground, a lake with a gushing fountain, and a spacious gazebo located just beyond parking. The park was doubled in a second phase in 2001, and additional amenities including a boardwalk through the mangroves, 1.5 acres of meandering tidal lagoons and a dock on Sarasota Bay were created.

In addition to the monies that were provided by Durante and the town of Longboat Key, the town was awarded a $195,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help enhance the wetlands and coastal hammock forest. The park was an instant success, and its popularity has grown over the years.

It has won many awards including the 1998 Outstanding Ecosystem Restoration Award from the Florida Urban Forestry Council, the Public Landscape Award from the Keep Manatee Beautiful organization, and the Image Manatee Beautification Award from the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce.

Besides being a wonderful place to experience the coastal estuarine habitat, the park has open areas that are perfect for practicing your fly casting and a boardwalk providing access to a productive stretch of Sarasota Bay.

Anglers can walk to the bay from the parking area or ride there by bicycle. Access also is available at the end of Gulf to Bay Road just south of the park entrance. There you will also find an area to launch kayaks and canoes.

It’s wonderful to see the public participation at Joan Durante Park. On any given day you’ll see birdwatchers, anglers, dog walkers and families enjoying this magnificent piece of Florida. Joan Durante Park is indeed a special place, one you’ll want to visit and a model for future projects that enhance our natural habitat.

AMISUN ~ The Island's Award-Winning Newspaper