Boca Raton is planning a March opening for a 24-acre recreational park area between Palmetto Park Road and Camino Real, has been pushed back from January until March, when visitors are likely to come across gopher tortoises moved there from a tract next door.
Damage from the past three hurricanes has postponed Blazing Star Preserve’s debut, said Buddy Parks, deputy recreation services director for the city.
“We don’t have staff to do all of the extra things, and this wasn’t highest on the priority list,” he said. “Now that we’re catching our breath, we’re ready to move forward.”
The Boca Raton City Council selected Florida Blacktop to build the $375,000 project. Construction will begin as soon as the company has received all the permits, said Steve Bass, manager of environmental education/conservation for the city.
The company will build a blacktopped parking lot and a path leading to a concrete information kiosk, which will have a map of plants and animals that visitors are likely to see. A mulch-covered path approximately a mile long will loop around the preserve. At the entrance on Camino Real, there will be irrigation and some landscaping, Bass said. The preserve will be open from sunrise to sunset and gated after dark.
Taxpayers have saved approximately $150,000 on this project because of work the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority on the preserve, Parks said. When the authority asked to build an additional track on the CSX Railroad five years ago, it had to relocate gopher tortoises. The track is adjacent to Blazing Star Preserve.
Although the tortoises are not endangered, they are listed as a species of special concern, Bass said. Animals protected under this act must be relocated, or their habitat must be left intact. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission voted in June to raise the gopher tortoise’s status from “species of special concern” to “threatened,” but the process isn’t final yet. Proximity and the size of Blazing Star made it the obvious choice to relocate the tortoises, but the area was too shady, Bass said.
“Tortoises are not forest animals,” he said.
About 70 percent of the canopy in the preserve, much of it sand pine trees, had to be removed. Tri-Rail paid for the tree removal, Bass said. Hurricanes did the rest but left behind debris, which has to be cleaned up so the tortoises and visitors can navigate around the preserve, Bass said. “The Tri-Rail did more than was required by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission,” Bass said.
The authority removed exotic plants, such as Brazilian pepper and earleaf acacia from the property, he said. To ensure a plentiful food supply for the new preserve residents, they planted vegetation such as grasses, cacti and flowering herbs.
Judging by the number of new burrows they’re finding, Bass said the tortoises appear to be settling in well. A chain-link fence surrounds the property, preventing them from wandering onto roads. At Camino Real, the fence is a foot deep underground, so they can’t burrow under it, Bass said. Natural barriers also prevent the animals from wandering away. At the north end of the preserve, the land slopes down into a wetland, which was part of the old Boca Raton slough, Bass said.
“The slough was a flow that carried fresh water from the Everglades to the lagoon, and we now call it the Intracoastal,” he said.
Boca Raton resident Don Stone has been on the city’s environmental board for 20 years. Preserves “are valuable,” he said, “because people can see what Florida really was like before it was civilized,” he said.