Some say a North Port spring has healing properties. Why are longtime visitors worried?
Many claim Warm Mineral Springs provides relief to aching joints. The site also has historical and environmental significance. A proposal by the city would allow a private developer to build on the land.
Warm Mineral Springs in North Port has been closed since Hurricane Ian ravaged Florida's Gulf coast in early September.
For residents like Alina Stolarski, nearly six months without access to the hot spring has been tough.
"I have very bad arthritis,” Stolarski said. “It helps me, I'm able to walk. When I moved here, I was not able. When I went in the tub, I could not get out of it. Now, I'm able to get out of the tub.”
“I need to go back to the lake again.”
The spring’s importance
Many residents claim Warm Mineral Springs has healing properties, with a dip in its waters providing relief to aching bones and joints.
Stolarksi says she's been going to Warm Mineral Springs for 30 years. She moved to North Port in recent years to be closer to the spring.
“I used to go there for whole day when we came only a month [out of the year],” Stolarski said. “But now, it's like two hours a day, three times a week. And it's perfect for me. I love it.”
North Port resident Jasmine Bowman has arthritis in her hips. After moving to the area from Bradenton, she decided to start swimming in the springs to see if it could soothe her pain.
"I did notice after about an hour, I felt immediate relief as far as bringing down my pain,” Brown said. “Other people who are regulars there told me that consistency is important, especially if you have a chronic condition. So I started going on a regular basis to manage my pain. But like I did feel immediate relief that [first] day. It was better than popping aspirin or taking a drink.”
Robin San Vicente worked at Warm Mineral Springs from 1999 until 2009, while the springs were under private ownership. It was eventually sold off to Sarasota County and the city of North Port, and finally purchased fully by North Port in 2014.
San Vicente says her favorite part of the spring is its sacredness and history.
“It totally changed my whole spiritual outlook on life,” San Vicente said. “I never connected that much to the land. I always had an affinity towards nature, but never towards the energy and the sacredness of land, and how land can really speak to you.”
Apart from being unique as Florida's only hot spring, the property also contains Native American history dating back thousands of years, with small artifacts and even ancient brain matter being found at the site.
One of the spring's outflows is also a haven for over 100 manatees to gather during colder winter months.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission calls the downstream run “the most important natural manatee warm-water refuge along Florida’s Southwest Coast.”
Developing the hidden gem
Now, a recent proposal the North Port City Commission is planning to consider would allow a private developer to partner with the city and build on the land. The potential change to the park is worrying some longtime visitors.
The only proposal listed so far comes from Warm Mineral Springs Development Group LLC. The plan includes a 250-room resort, 300-residential units, a wellness center, a restaurant, and more, all built across the roughly 60 acres that surround the 20-acre spring.
That much new development around the spring concerns visitors like Bowman.
"That would affect the aquifer, and the limestone area that all of the acreage is consisting of,” Bowman said. “But beyond that would be, for my second concern, the pollution."
Meanwhile, Stolarski says she's worried local residents will lose access to their hidden gem.
“What's going to happen as far as how much are they going to charge you?” Stolarski said. “And if they take over, I think they're going to close it, then they will not even let us have access to it."
In 2019, the city of North Port released a master plan for Warm Mineral Springs, with resident feedback. It called for fixes to existing buildings that had fallen into disrepair, and the potential for "low-impact" development, like an open-air amphitheater and picnic areas.
However, completing all the projects listed in the plan would cost the city roughly $18 million, according to city officials, which is well above the $9 million allocated for spring’s restoration.
North Port City Manager Jerome Fletcher says city officials don’t want to piecemeal the improvements over a extended period of time, and that in exploring a public-private partnership, the site could reach its full economic potential, which the 2019 plan lacked.
"[The 2019 plan] would not generate any revenue of substantial value,” Fletcher said. “So the when you look at what we're trying to do, we're trying to restore and rebuild it … and the question becomes, well, couldn't you do that as a city? Did you need a partner to do that? Yes, we could do it as a city, it will just take a lot longer."
A report from Quicken loans lists North Port as the second fastest growing city in the country. Fletcher says this furthers the need for economic anchor points.
"This is a highly residential area, I believe it's something like 92% residential to 8% commercial, and we want to build that up,” Fletcher said. “But as a bedroom community, which [North Port] has been for multiple decades, that switch doesn't get flipped overnight."
But some visitors and environmentalists say the $9 million would have been enough to cover restoration efforts without adding more development.
“This small property is was never meant to accommodate such massive brick-and-mortar development,” said Barbara Lockhart, president of the Environmental Conservancy of North Port and Surrounding Areas. “Never mind the roads in and out, and the neighbors that live there. People that are going to be coming down the Legacy Trail to experience nature at Warm Mineral Springs are going to run into hotels and a 70,000-square-foot spa. There's no way that that could ever be the proper fit.”
The debate has only just begun
Fletcher says he's going to push for more public engagement on the topic to get a wider range of viewpoints, since around 200 people spoke out on the plan in 2019.
“In 2019 the city had about 77,000 people in it, and 200 people out of 77,000 is not a good sample size of what this community wants,” Stokes said. “So as we go forward, now we say, ‘Hey, we're going to reengage the community in this effort,' and we hope to have a larger sample size.”
Barbara Langdon is mayor of North Port. She says a large part of her running for a commission seat had to do with Warm Mineral Springs.
“I was enormously concerned that the city is in a terrible, unbalanced state, between residential development and industrial commercial development,” Langdon said.
While Langdon says she doesn't agree with the entire proposal that the developer offered, she wants to see the property built to become a positive financial asset.
“We look at it as an ecotourism opportunity,” Langdon said. “So we don't see a Disney Land. We see a property that potentially offers a wide range of people some insight and experience with what Florida was like 100 years ago.”
City Commissioner Phil Stokes feels similarly. He says the 2019 plan worked at the time, but there have been changes since then.
“With the projected costs to renovate it, it was a pretty logical approach to the springs,” Stokes said. “Lots has happened since then. The costs from then to now have jumped astronomically in every area. [Hurricane] Ian didn't help, it devastated that property. And the change in the city, the dynamic of growth, the additional population, you know, it's a different leadership.”
And Stokes believes the proposal that Warm Mineral Springs LLC still shares some of the vision concluded in the 2019 plan.
“Will everyone get what they want? No. Will everybody get some of what they want? Yeah.”
Overall, Langdon says small tweaks to Warm Mineral Springs won’t be beneficial to North Port residents, and the property itself, long-term.
"We would not be good stewards of the city to allow that property to stay in the condition that it is or make marginal, not even improvements, but just maintenance efforts,” Langdon said. “Even that is too expensive."
Addressing the environmental concerns
The City Commission has assured opponents of development that the roughly 20 acres considered environmentally sensitive around the spring will not be harmed, and an environmental study would have to take place to determine if building would have negative impacts on the land.
City officials like Fletcher and Stokes said the study will most likely be paid for by the developer that is selected during the request for proposal process, which opponents say could lead to a biased report.
“The studies that any partner might do will be cleared by us,” Stokes said. “They're not going to be biased. They got to be independent. There are processes to go through, and criteria that will have to be met. I feel very comfortable that the organizations that that will do these studies and report back to our partners and the city are going to be of the highest integrity. Nobody, especially a partner who would put millions of dollars into this project, wants to risk the potential of damaging the springs.”
But opponents of the development are far from sold.
"The most important thing is the sacredness and the preservation of that whole property, not just the spring itself,” San Vicente said. “It's the whole 82 acres of that property. It's all sensitive. It's all ancient."
David Iannotti is a North Port resident who has been rallying locals against the development, and what he says is a lack of transparency from the city government concerning the potential building.
“I don't feel like this was something that was done with public input,” Iannotti said regarding the city’s change from considering the 2019 plan to considering new development proposals now. “Whereas there was an existing plan in place that pretty much everybody who was aware of mineral springs thought that was what we were proceeding with. So for me, it was really about helping people speak before the commission and understanding how you do that.”
San Vicente says she won't be happy with any new developments, apart from restoring existing structures.
And she's confident their efforts will pay off.
"Because we're going to fight it to the bitter end," San Vicente said. "That's it."
The city will continue to field development proposals until March 15, and then will hold a meeting to consider the options.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7