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Sandy Ridge Sanctuary

by Michael D. Kroll, RLA, vice president, Miller Legg

The Sandy Ridge Sanctuary is a 37-acre parcel located in Coral Springs, Florida just northwest of Fort Lauderdale. Within the highly urbanized mosaic of Southeast Florida the unique natural resources of the Sanctuary provided the opportunity for a project to integrate a community's recreational needs with environmental enhancements and education.

The osprey marker reads: "The osprey's distinguishing feature is its black mask in breeding season. Ospryes build bulky nests in tall trees near open water where they have access to their main diet of fish. Also known as the fish eagle, ospreys fish by diving towards their prey then plunging feet first to snatch it."

Prior to human drainage and pasturage activities, the Sanctuary area had been a portion of the eastern Everglades. This area of the Everglades was once characterized by a relatively level, low elevation which was inundated by seasonal precipitation and had a surface water flow which moved imperceptibly southward from Lake Okeechobee toward sloughs that discharge into Cypress Creek. Settlers began drainage programs in the eastern Everglades as early as the 1850s, which increased significantly after the creation of the Everglades Drainage District (EDD) in 1906. The primary native vegetative community of the Everglades was sawgrass (Cladium jamaicensis) and similar herbaceous communities. Interspersed throughout the dominant sawgrass marsh were tree islands and hammocks, often associated with limestone outcrops, ponds and sloughs. The tree islands and hammocks tend to form on the slightly higher elevations associated with sandy soils because they are better drained. Sandy Ridge Sanctuary is an example of these historic tree islands and hammocks.

The master plan shows the proposed development of the pedestrian trails through the various habitats within the Sanctuary and the restoration of the open water and marsh habitats. Notice the special attention given to the alignment of the pedestrian trail system and the parking area to minimize the impacts on existing large canopy tree species.

The Pine Flatwoods

The Sandy Ridge Sanctuary contains the largest remaining contiguous pine flatwood community in Broward County. Because of this, the Sandy Ridge Sanctuary was designated a "local area of particular concern" (LAPC) by Broward County in 1989. This project site was one of only 48 sites designated as LAPCs by Broward County. This classification was based upon the uniqueness and diversity of native vegetation, the potential for protection and preservation, and geography. Following the designation of this property as an LAPC, the city of Coral Springs and its residents determined that the preservation of the environmentally sensitive lands (ESL) within the city would be important to its present and future citizens. Therefore, in March 1994 the voters approved the $7.5 million Environmentally Sensitive Lands Bond Referendum with a portion of the funds used to purchase the Sandy Ridge Sanctuary site in January 1996. In addition, a $2 million grant through the Florida Communities Trust (FCT) was applied for and awarded to aid the city in acquisition and development of this project. Miller Legg, the city's landscape architect and environmental consultant, developed a conceptual plan for the Sanctuary that was submitted with the grant application. The conceptual design for the Sanctuary integrated various recreational, environmental and pedestrian elements of the city's comprehensive plan into the design.

The conceptual plan identifies the northeast 20 acres of the site designated as a gopher tortoise/pine flatwoods preserve area and the linear park to buffer the preserve area from the residential developments to the south and west.

Victim of Adjacent Development

The Sanctuary had sat vacant for many years and had fallen victim to adjacent development impacts. Illegal dumping, vagrancy and feral animal species were prevalent throughout the property. Further stressing the Sanctuary was uninhibited vehicular access from adjacent roadways that existed along half of the property. The Sanctuary's native plant communities had become overgrown with nuisance plant species such as air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebenthifolius) and Melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia).

Sandy Ridge Sanctuary as it appeared in 1996 showing the existing canopy of pine and the understory of exotic plant species. Also evident in the slide is the adjacent residential context.

1997 shot of Sandy Ridge Sanctuary from the south after exotic plant control work has removed dense growths of Brazilian pepper trees (Schinus terebinthifolius) (right) one of the most aggressive of the invasive nonindigenous plants in Florida, and the Melaleuca, aka the paperbark, punk, cajeput or white bottlebrush tree, (below) a subtropical in the eucalyptus family that is an aggressive invader. The Melaleuca can convert sawgrass marshes, wet prairies and aquatic sloughs into mpenetrable paperbark thickets.

In addition to the Sanctuary's pine flatwood community, numerous other native habitats were present within the property site, including Cypress hammocks, a dry prairie, remnant hardwood wetlands and palm hammocks. A large cleared area also existed on the site. This area was created by harvesting of Cypress trees for lumber and mulch production in the mid-1900s. The sandy soil within the Sanctuary and the associated vegetation supported a small gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) population. Gopher tortoises are a listed species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, numerous other listed commensal species such as the indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) and the gopher frog (Rana capito) were documented by Miller Legg's environmental staff as being present on the site.

Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp), a threatened native plant species, was installed in the preservation area. The plant is critical to the foraging of the Sanctuary's gopher tortoises whose burrows are seen in the background.

Integrating Recreational Use

In the development of the program for the Sanctuary, Miller Legg had to consider these very unique habitats and species. The primary goal of the project's program was to integrate a recreational use on the property with the existing habitats. The recreational element was to develop a passive linear park that included a children's playground, walking trails and picnicking areas. The linear park would serve as a buffer between the adjacent residential development areas and the Sanctuary's preservation area.

Part of the program for the Sanctuary is educational tours describing the biodiversity and importance of its various species and special occasions, like these images from Earth Day.

The preservation area consists of approximately 20 acres that is fenced and gated from the adjacent passive linear park. This was necessary to prevent the movement of gopher tortoises from the preserve area into the linear park where the reptiles could by harmed on the adjacent roadways or those residents using the linear park. The program also included limited public access to the preserve area. This is provided through guided tours throughout the preserve that are conducted on a regular basis by the city biological staff.

The linear park incorporates trails that traverse through the key ecological communities of the Sanctuary.

In addition to these guided tours through the preserve areas, Sandy Ridge Sanctuary is the home for the annual Earth Day celebration by the city. During the Earth Day celebration, numerous animal species are exhibited and guided tours are given to the residents.

The pine flatwood habitat with leather ferns and sabal palmetto.

Excising the Exotics

The initial work effort was the eradication and removal of the exotic plant species from the entire Sanctuary. This was selectively done by hand clearing of vines and small trees as well as limited mechanical clearing dense stands of Brazilian pepper or Melaleuca. Upon completion of this clearing activity the alignment of trails were finalized for walkways within the linear park and the preserve area. These trails were aligned in order to provide the end user an experience and interaction with the variety of habitats located throughout the Sanctuary. All trails were paved in order to ensure uninhibited access for all park users.

Gopher apple (Licania michauxii Prance), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.), wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa), leather fern (Acrostichum danaeifolium) and gallberry (Ilex coriacea), all native plant species, were planted among the existing vegetation to enhance the understory, prevent reinfestation of exotic or nuisance plant species and provide refuge for a variety of faunal species.

To enhance the educational experience of the Sanctuary Miller Legg's landscape architects coordinated with artists to develop unique vandal-resistant interpretive signage. The signage includes graphics and brief narratives of various plant and animal species found within the Sanctuary. These signs are located along to the trails and adjacent to the various species or habitats that they describe.

To enhance the diversity of wildlife and floral species within the Sanctuary, the design of a small open water lake and freshwater marsh was developed within the preserve area. In the marsh areas, indigenous freshwater marsh plants, including spikerush, duck potato, pickerelweed and bulrush, were selected for their habitat value and colorful blooms.

To enhance the diversity of floral and faunal species within the Sanctuary the program included a created small open water lake and fresh water marsh within the preserve area. Miller Legg designed this open water/marsh habitat in the historical cypress area that had been cleared for lumber and mulch production. The area's hydrology had been altered during the adjacent residential development activities. The design included excavation of this area to ensure that the marsh and open water would be supported by the existing groundwater system. This open water/marsh habitat therefore mimics the hydrology of historic eastern Everglades wetlands by its ability to flourish during varied seasonal inundation levels. The marsh areas were planted with numerous herbaceous species such as duck potato (Sagittaria lancifolia), pickerelweed (Pontedaria cordata), spikerush (Eleocharis spp.) and bulrush (Scirpus spp.). These species provide foraging and nesting opportunities for wading birds as well as refuge for numerous reptiles, amphibians and juvenile fish. Adjacent to the marsh area, forested wetlands dominated by bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) taxiodium descendents were also created.

Open water and marsh restoration work in the historic wetland area of the Sanctuary reveals cypress (Taxodium spp) and red maple (Acer rubrum) species incorporated in the design to provide overstory tree species.


Throughout the Sanctuary areas that lacked understory due to the eradication and removal of the exotic and nuisance plant species were revegetated with native understory species. These understory species replicated the native pine flatwood communities as well as provided for foraging material of the gopher tortoises. Specific understory plant species included gopher apple (Licania michauxii Prance), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.), wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa), leather fern (Acrostichum danaeifolium) and gallberry (Ilex coriacea). The preserve area of the Sanctuary has been so successful in the support of the gopher tortoise's population that it has now been designated by the state of Florida as a recipient site for tortoises displaced by various development impacts. As part of the city's management plan developed by Miller Legg for the Sanctuary, an established maximum population for the preserve area within the Sanctuary has been established and is being actively managed.

With the additions of the indigenous marsh plants in the Sanctuary a number of species have taken refuge here: the great horned owl (ABOVE), osprey, large, narrow-winged hawk, gray fox and gopher tortoise (through relocation efforts). The use and inhabitation of the Sanctuary by these wildlife species demonstrate an important success of the long-term project.

Sandy Ridge Sanctuary also has been very successful in facilitating recreational needs of city resident. The surrounding communities had no recreational facilities located within walking or biking distances. The Sanctuary linear park incorporates walking trails, interpretive signage, picnic pavilions, parking area, restroom facilities and a children's play area. The creative site specific design of the trails, parking area and other amenities through the existing trees and understory vegetation allowed these enhancements to be completed while removing only 10 nonexotic trees. The organic design of the parking area and trails can be seen on the overall master plan for this project.

A gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) foraging within the Sandy Ridge Sanctuary.

To ensure the long term and continued success of the Sanctuary, Miller Legg prepared a management plan that detailed the required processes for managing the fragile habitats. This management plan included guidelines for scheduled undergrowth thinning to provide the proper foraging areas for gopher tortoises; the implementation of controlled burns to manage the pine flatwood communities through fire ecology; and programming of tours throughout the year so the public can enjoy seasonal variations of floral and faunal species.

The plaque reads: "Eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon corais couperi). This protected species of nonpoisonous snake can be characterized by its glossy blue-black color. The destruction and depletion of this snake's native habitat have drastically reduced its numbers."


In addition to being a treasured resource for the residents of Coral Springs, this project has recreational, environmental and educational elements. As such, the Sanctuary has received numerous awards. Some of these awards include the 2002 Broward Beautiful Beautification Awards (1st place for large-scale parks); 2001 Florida Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects Award of Excellence; and a 1999 Florida Native Plant Society award.

The landscape architect developed educational signage to identify the key flora and fauna of the Sanctuary. The signage reads: "Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa). Wild coffee is found throughout the Sanctuary's understory. It has deeply veined shiny leaves with red berries that appear in the summer months. The berries are eaten by many wildlife species."

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December 10, 2019, 8:09 pm PDT

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