A LAST GASP 


To Richard Nehrling, the tiny town of Gotha, in west Orange County, is "a diamond in the rough," repository of a treasure of unimaginable value to the entire state of Florida. The old German settlement is home to his great-grandfather Henry Nehrling's legacy: six acres of rare trees and plants – Southern cedars and magnolias, a monkey puzzle tree, a stand of giant bamboo 0scattered throughout what's known as the Nehrling Palm Cottage Gardens. For the last four years, the 40-year-old Nehrling and his supporters have lobbied Orange County government to buy the 103-year-old gardens and save the property and the two-story Cracker house that sits on it – the house was built in 1880 and moved to its current site in 1902 – for future generations to enjoy.

It hasn't been an easy sell. While the county has been willing to fund more than half of the cost of the purchase price, the closing costs and a privacy wall that would have to be built around the property, Nehrling and his supporters have been unable to convince the county commission to pick up the whole tab and then turn the land over them them – under the auspices of the Nehrling Society – to run as a park.

Orange County's hesitance is twofold. For starters, some commissioners are unconvinced that the gardens, which are not kept up nearly as well as they were a century ago, are that valuable. More importantly, the county worries that even if it bought the land, the Nehrling Society would be unable to maintain it, and then that burden would fall to the taxpayers as well.

From the county's perspective, it has already promised $500,000 of the needed $800,000, while the Nehrling Society has been unable to raise the rest of the money over the last four years. What guarantee is there that they'll be able to raise enough money to maintain the land? In fact, Orange County deputy administrator John Terwilliger says the county has been "very consistent and accommodating. It's been unfortunate that the society has not been able to raise any additional funds of a substantial amount to make that happen."

After four years of bickering, the saga is nearing a conclusion, though not the one Nehrling would like to see. If the Nehrling Society doesn't raise its share of the money by Sept. 30, the county is going to rescind its promised $500,000. But there's an even tighter deadline: Barbara Bochiardy, who owns the property, is going to sell the property on Sept. 15. If the Nehrling Society hasn't raised the money by then, Henry Nehrling's gardens may become a developer's playground.

This botanical soap opera started in 1998, when Bochiardy, 75, decided to move. She could have sold her land on the open market; her lakefront property would probably net a lot of money. Bochiardy and Nehrling enthusiasts instead lobbied the county to buy the land and save the gardens. Their plan was simple: The county would buy the property, and the Nehrling Society would raise money to maintain and operate it. Bochiardy's house would become a museum.

The county wasn't as enthusiastic as the Nehrling backers would have liked. The gardens simply weren't a priority.

"There are a lot of needs for parks," Orange County spokesman Steve Triggs says. "That one just ranks at the bottom of the list."

Still, under pressure from the Nehrling backers and repeated editorials in the Orlando Sentinel, the county offered to meet the advocates halfway – actually, a little more than halfway.

Botany buff Bochiardy wants $600,000 for the property, plus closing costs and $150,000 to build a brick privacy wall for neighbors. In 2001, the county agreed to earmark $450,000 toward acquiring the property and another $50,000 to help fund the upkeep. So the Society turned to the state's Florida Communities Trust Florida Forever grant program, which was designed to fund environmentally precious land acquisitions. If their grant application was approved, the Society would receive an additional $279,000, bringing its dream closer to reality.

And, says Nehrling Society volunteer Scott Boggs, Florida Forever was willing to give the Society the money. But then came the hiccup. "Everything was intact with the grant application," Boggs says. "We had good feedback from people in the know about these grants."

In fact, according to Nehrling, the FCT ranked the Society's grant application No. 15 out of a possible 40 applications to be funded. (Applications ranked higher than 40 don't get money.) Everything was a go, Nehrling says – except that the FCT wanted a letter of support from Orange County.

To the Nehrling Society's dismay, the county said no earlier this year, and their chances of getting the grant – and thus preserving the gardens – slipped away. The gardens' supporters couldn't understand why the county would, in their estimation, stab them in the back.

For the county, it was a matter of trust – or rather, a lack thereof. County officials have said the issue isn't just the money to buy the property, but also that they doubt the Nehrling Society could in fact raise enough money to maintain the property. "Orange County for the fourth time had indicated that they did not wish to own the property," Terwilliger says. "Co-signing, should the Society fail, would place all responsibility on Orange County government, and all of those costs, and they'd be substantial over the next few years."

The county estimates that it would cost roughly $420,000 to maintain and operate the gardens for the first year alone – including a $250,000 turning lane that county spokesman Triggs says would have to be built. For the next four years, the county says it would cost $280,000 in total. The Nehrling Society disputes those numbers: It says it can operate the gardens for $160,000 a year for the first two years, and then $42,500 a year after that.

Boggs says the Nehrling Society hasn't yet determined how it will raise that money. It could come from admission fees to the gardens, renting them out as a backdrop to weddings or photo shoots, government grants or private donations. As a last option, the Nehrling Society is considering asking the St. Johns River Water Management District for some of the money, though it's too soon to tell if that will go anywhere.

At a July 21 budget hearing, the Society made a last-ditch plea to enlist more of the county's support. Despite the 30-minute presentation, the board stuck by its $500,000 offer. "Their answer to us was, 'We want no part of it, we feel the pressure, we get the letters, we're willing to put some money in, but we don't want any part of managing it,'" Nehrling says.

It might be different if the county considered the gardens more than a marginal asset. "The Nehrling Society `has` a great vision. It's a great piece of property, but there are no gardens there," says Orange County horticulturalist Tom MacCubbins. "There are trees and plant materials."

He says most of the trees and plants would have to be propagated – spread throughout the property – and a lot of work is required to actually save them.

"We know the gardens that my great-grandpa started 100 years ago aren't there the way he planted them, but you're crazy to think they aren't still standing on the property," Nehrling says.

Not only did the county rebuff the Society's pleas for more money, it announced that if the Nehrling Society couldn't come up with funds to close the deal by the end of this fiscal year – Sept. 30 – it would divert the $500,000 it promised.

Bochiardy, after four years of waiting for the Nehrling Society and Orange County to work something out, has had enough. Her estate is up for sale now, and she closes the deal Sept. 15. That is, unless the Society succeeds in raising the $300,000.

With each passing day, that looks less and less likely.

pferguson@orlandoweekly.com

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