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County sets aside money to clear Chinsegut Hill property of exotic plants

The 165-year-old Chinsegut Hill manor house is surrounded by invasive plant species, threatening the natural landscape.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

The 165-year-old Chinsegut Hill manor house is surrounded by invasive plant species, threatening the natural landscape.

BROOKSVILLE — For longtime supporters looking to restore the 165-year-old Chinsegut Hill manor house, the announcement in May of a $1.5 million state grant toward the effort was welcome news. The grant, they said, would be enough to do restoration work, ensuring that the landmark will be around for future generations.

Likewise, supporters say, the Hernando County Commission's recent action to add the 114 acres to the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands program will bring lasting benefits.

The land is part of a 2,000-acre tract north of Brooksville that was home to some of the county's earliest pioneers.

But it has fallen victim to an infestation of exotic species, such as skunk vine, air potato vine, bamboo and cogongrass, which stifle the health of native plants and trees and threaten the survival of an endangered wildflower known as the Brooksville bellflower.

Dawn Velsor, the county's lead environmental planner, said the Chinsegut Hill tract fell perfectly into the stewardship program that has helped preserve areas such as Peck Sink, Pickett's Hammock, Cypress Lake and Bayport Park. Chinsegut Hill, she said, is significant in that it contains some of the area's most unique land features.

"There is no other place remotely like it in the county," Velsor said. "Restoring the land will greatly complement the manor house project and will make it that much more appealing to visitors."

The land, which at one time supported orange groves, vegetable gardens, cattle and other agricultural operations, has been in public hands since Raymond and Margaret Robins bequeathed it to the federal government in the 1930s for use as a research facility.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture later leased part of the surrounding land to the University of Florida in the 1950s, then to the University of South Florida, which used the property and manor house for 40 years as a retreat and conference center.

The governmental entities did little to mitigate the invasive species during their stay. However, Christie Anderberg, a member of the Friends of Chinsegut nonprofit group overseeing restoration of the manor house, said that many of the exotic species were originally planted by the Robins family for aesthetic purposes.

"Back then, they probably just didn't know how uncontrollable bamboo and cogongrass really are," Anderberg said. "They just thought it made the property more attractive."

Gene Kelly, a botanist who sits on the board of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee, said ridding the Chinsegut property of invasive species will require an "aggressive approach" and likely will take months or even years to complete.

"Anytime you have exotics that have been entrenched for decades, you're looking at repeated applications of herbicides and quite a bit of mechanical removal as well," Kelly said. "It's a long, involved process. But it needs to be done in order to prevent further loss of the natural habitat."

Upon completion of a thorough survey, the committee will work with the state Forestry Service to come up with a formal plan to eradicate unwanted vegetation, Kelly said. Approximately $67,000 has been set aside from the Environmentally Sensitive Lands fund for the project.

Future plans for the property include creating facilities for public use, including a hiking trail and adding an observation area overlooking the former lime rock quarry below.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

County sets aside money to clear Chinsegut Hill property of exotic plants 07/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 7:58pm]

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