May 19, 2022

As America observes Earth Day for a 52nd year, Villages residents have more access to the community’s natural world. Southward expansion is increasing the number of outdoor sanctuaries in The Villages, seen at places such as Homestead Recreation Center, which includes a tree-lined nature boardwalk. “The Villages community sets aside nature preserves and incorporates pathways, trails and overlooks so residents can enjoy the beauty of the area and the natural habitat for wildlife and native plants,” said Bruce Brown, assistant district manager for  the Village Community Development Districts.

More destinations in Villagers’ backyards for appreciating Florida’s flora and fauna are expected in the coming years as the District continues its commitment to environmental stewardship. 

Built Around Nature

The Villages includes more than 1,400 acres of water retention areas, 2,700 acres of wetlands and 83 preserves, Brown said.

These areas support the region’s ecological balance by filtering out pollutants and preventing them from affecting groundwater resources, as well as providing habitat for wildlife, he said.

Like state and national parks, The Villages’ natural oases are spaces for residents to enjoy outdoor recreation, a function just as important as the roles they play in the environment.

Over the last decade, the Sharon Rose Wiechens Preserve, Hogeye Preserve Pathway and Fenney Springs Nature Trail have developed reputations as premier wildlife viewing destinations in Central Florida, especially for birding.

Hogeye and Fenney rank No. 2 and No. 8, respectively, among places with the most unique bird species in Sumter County, according to data from eBird, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Wiechens Preserve is the top Lake County birding hot spot in The Villages and counts some of the largest species diversity outside of the Lake Apopka North Shore’s trails and wildlife drive, according to eBird.

On a recent trip to the Fenney trail — built around a large freshwater spring — a group of 30 members of the Village Birders found adult and young little blue herons, plus a blue-winged teal, belted kingfisher and pileated woodpecker, trip leader Alice Horst said.

“From the boardwalk, we watched a beautiful tricolored heron in breeding plumage getting breakfast,” said Horst, of the Village of Briar Meadow. “Many little birds (were) flitting around in tree leaves.” 

Stan Lavender, of the informal Brownwood Birders group, last year gave a presentation to the Village Birders highlighting the Fenney trail as one of the best spots for finding the pileated woodpecker, which is the largest North American woodpecker species.

Along with birds, alligators, turtles, snakes, otters and fox squirrels inhabit the wetlands, according to the District.

Wetland Importance

As The Villages expands south, the District government’s commitment to wetland conservation expands with it.

Residents find these marshy landscapes along pathways that edge up to them. These include Hogeye Preserve Pathway, which borders the 81-acre Hogeye Preserve, and walking trails along the western boundary of the 913-acre Chitty Chatty Preserve.

Wetlands serve a critical purpose in filtering out pollutants in the environment, allowing plants and wildlife to thrive, Brown said. He, like others with expertise on wetland habitats, compared the wetlands function to kidneys in the human body.

“As water passes through a wetland, much of the pollution dissolved or suspended in the water is trapped by wetland plants and soils,” he said. “Many pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus … are converted into food material for aquatic plants and animals, some of which are threatened or endangered.”

Plants and soils in wetlands also collect and store stormwater runoff, which recharges the aquifer and reduces the risk of flood damage, Brown said. The Villages’ stormwater system and water retention basins also play a role in mitigating flood risks.

Wetlands also contribute to the aesthetics of The Villages. For instance, a number of golf courses are located along the borders of wetlands, making it possible for golfers to catch glimpses of birds while on the green.

The Villages manages a large amount of green space without drawing too much water from aquifers because it extensively uses alternative water sources for irrigation. These sources include reclaimed water, which is highly treated wastewater reused for purposes other than drinking.

Historically, The Villages used reclaimed water to irrigate golf courses and landscape medians, said Ryan Schoel, water resource manager with Arnett Environmental. But south of State Road 44, reclaimed water is also distributed to residents for their home landscapes.

“We have much less wasted water and we pull out of the aquifers less,” he said.

Staff with the Southwest Florida Water Management District on multiple occasions commended The Villages for its reclaimed water use, Schoel said.

More Nature-Based Recreation is Coming

Numerous research studies, including a Danish study using data from NASA Earth Observatory’s Landsat satellites published in 2019, found green space in communities correlates with better physical and emotional wellness.

With those benefits in mind, The Villages plans nature and wetland conservation as part of the community’s growth.

Homestead Recreation Center, which features a nature trail and boardwalk described as “secluded,” opened in January in the Village of Citrus Grove. 

Eastport, the new town center in development between the future Southern Oaks Bridge to the north and Central Parkway (formerly County Road 470) to the south, includes a 1,000-meter water body called Central Lake.

A walking path will surround the lake, which also will feature a tree-lined park on its west end and an island for scenic viewing called Sunset Island on its east end, said Tracy Morse, vice president of The Villages Design Division, in a video update on construction and future planning.

Lake Okahumpka Recreation Center, being built around a section of Lake Okahumpka facing Meggison Road, will include a boardwalk along the water’s edge where people can view the lake, and plenty of large live oak trees.

“I think the beauty of the Lake Okahumpka area is the wetlands,” Morse said. “And it’s got massive amounts of old, beautiful trees. There will be a lot of observing of wildlife … it will be a really special place when it gets done.”

New nature-based amenities also are springing up in other parts of The Villages.

District staff is developing a new walking trail along Black Lake Preserve, near Lake Miona Regional Recreation Complex, Brown said. He added it will “offer plentiful opportunities to view wildlife in their natural habitat.” 

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or [email protected]


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