Sunrise, Fla., has balanced the environmental needs of a natural habitat with the city’s need for a public park.
Sunrise officials have long recognized that parks are critical to the quality of life in Sunrise — especially because a third of the city’s 33,442 households contain children under age 18. Eager to enhance the quality and quantity of the city’s green spaces, officials proposed Sawgrass Sanctuary Park, a 20-acre eco-sensitive park and learning center perched at the edge of the Everglades ecosystem.
The Sawgrass Sanctuary originally was conceived to highlight the state’s wetlands environment and preserve it for future generations. The chosen site was ideal because it was located near the interchange of three major highways and would be easily accessible by residents, yet it was tucked into a residential community. Additionally, the area was adjacent to a school so it could serve as an outdoor environmental classroom. It also was near the existing Oscar Wind Park, which would supplement the size and amenities of the sanctuary with soccer and baseball fields.
Because the site was zoned for commercial use, the city had to amend its land use plan to zone the area as recreation/open space. City officials also had to educate the public and state agencies about the merits of the project. Eventually, Sunrise received more than $1 million in grants to purchase 10 acres, and it received another 10 acres donated by owners.
Once the city controlled the land, restoring and enhancing the area posed many challenges. An ecological survey revealed 12 acres of exotic vegetation, including an 8-acre forest of Brazilian pepper trees, needed to be replaced with native species. The site also contained a 6.8-acre rock pit lake surrounded by wetland vegetation around its narrow shoreline. The banks had to be cut back and replanted with native aquatics, and the shoreline had to be expanded from 20 to 32 feet.
To remediate the property’s upland area, which had been drained in the 1940s and once housed an abandoned citrus grove, the city had to construct 1.3 acres of vegetation islands similar to natural tree islands located in the Everglades. The island wetlands now serve as a habitat for protected and threatened native plants and wildlife. Portions of the sandy ridge also had to be preserved. Following the improvements, the city stocked the lake with freshwater fish.
In total, the city expanded the park’s wetland vegetation nearly 6 acres. To maximize public viewing and enjoyment of the park, the city constructed nature trails and jogging/bike paths that do not disturb the plant and animal habitats. Public access areas include a 200-linear-foot boardwalk, an observation platform, a fishing bank and pier, picnic pavilions, a concert platform, restrooms and four interpretive displays identifying the dominant native park ecosystems.
City officials believe the Sawgrass Sanctuary reflects the beauty of the wetlands environment while offering an array of recreational amenities, says Thomas Kassawara, planning and development director. Sunrise has “reconciled the two uses of the facility — preserving the habitat [and providing] interactive components so that it’s more interesting to the public,” he says. The project cost approximately $3.45 million, nearly $150,000 less than the budgeted amount.
Agencies/companies involved: Audubon Society, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Broward County Historical Commission, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Craven Thompson & Associates, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla; Florida Communities Trust, Tallahassee; Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Design and Recreation Services, Tallahassee; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (formerly Florida Game and Freshwater Commission), Tallahassee; Hewett-Kier Construction, Pompano Beach, Fla.; Natural Habitat Inc., Palm City, Fla.; Sierra Club, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; South Florida Water Management District, West Palm Beach, Fla.; Summer Rain Inc., Margate, Fla.