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Children of the Slough: Conservation 20/20 owes much to 30-year-old purchase

By Staff | Oct 11, 2008

The year: 1979. The location: Old Lee County courthouse, commissioner’s chambers.

A 14-year-old Karen Forsyth stood before commissioners with a handful of other local high school students, pleading their case for preserving the Six Mile Cypress Slough.

Much was at stake on that fateful day for not only the slough but the county itself. The slough was being threatened by the logging industry which wanted to channel away the slough’s water and begin operations.

There’s little doubt the community at large understood the future implications of selling, or keeping, the slough. At the time, less than 10 percent of all land throughout Lee county was preserved for public use, a significant number if you consider the onslaught of the real estate boom that was just around the corner.

The “Monday Group,” as that particular band of students was known by, had a vision for the six- mile slough that spoke to Florida’s primordial past; they wanted to be able to stroll amongst the age-old cypress trees and observe the vast array of natural flora and fauna, not only for 1979 but for years to come.

After the Monday Group made its plea, county residents voted to increase taxation in order to funnel that cash toward purchasing the property and keeping the logging industry away.

Purchasing the slough was the first salvo in the war against sprawl and overpopulation, though no one at the time knew what it meant or what was upon them.

Today’s Conservation 20/20 program is the cousin of that long-ago purchase, buying land from private citizens or organizations and preserving them for public use.

Karen Forsyth is now head of not only the Conservation 20/20 program, but county lands for all of Lee County. It’s been a strange, if not surprising path, for the Director of County Lands.

“When I think back, it’s kind of unusual the things that brought me on this particular career path,” Forsyth said. “My main pursuit out of college was the real estate field.”

With a background in title research, Forsyth worked with the Lee County Property Appraiser’s office before moving to the county lands division. In five years she was promoted to director, when she “just happened to be in the position” as the 20/20 program was being created.

“In the mid 90s there was a lot of concern surrounding environmental issues and land preservation,” Forsyth said. “This brought about a grass roots group of private citizens who saw the need for land acquisition to save land for people to enjoy passive recreation.”

To date, the county has bought nearly 20,000 acres. Thirty-six of the 93 properties acquired have been designated as preserves, which are available for public use. Hiking, fishing, kayaking and canoeing are but a few of the activities that have been saved for future generations.

“All of those acquisitions play into the best interest of the public,” Forsyth said.

20/20’s first purchase came in 1997, a combination of parcels the county essentially purchased from itself for $600,000, according to an Acquired Properties Report provided by the Division of County Lands.

The most recent purchase, pending an environmental audit, is a parcel designated 371, located north of Buckingham Road in Lehigh.

The particular parcel came before county commissioners on Sept. 30 for final approval, a move that was unusual because the seller’s asking price was higher than the original appraisal.

Possible Conservation 20/20 purchases never come before the commission if the price is above appraisal.

“The division of county lands cannot recommend a purchase unless it’s under the appraised amount,” Commissioner Frank Mann said.

The move sparked debate among commissioners, particularly Mann, who suggested putting a freeze on all 20/20 purchases for six months.

He said he hadn’t planned to come out with the suggestion at that meeting, but decided to do so because he didn’t “like” the parcel.

“The more I thought about it I thought it was foolish to buy anything over appraisal when the real estate market is collapsing around us each day,” Mann said. “It’s foolish to buy anything till this market settles down and the values become clearer.”

Mann went on say all of the recent appraisals should be redone, and could possibly save the county as much as 10 percent on each purchase.

“We need to step back reappraise the situation,” Mann said. “There’s no indication we’ve found the bottom of the this market yet.”

If now is the right time to be making purchases for the 20/20 program remains to be seen, as predicting the market is nearly impossible.

Until directed otherwise, staff continues to follow the program as outlined.

Forsyth, meanwhile, fears the market could indeed rebound and appraisal prices could suddenly skyrocket again.

“I hate to see the program put on hold and wait for the magical time of six months,” she said. “All of a sudden the market turns around and we are where we were six years ago.”

According to Forsyth, there might be no proper time, regardless of the market, to freeze or even stop making purchases for the 20/20 program.

The draw for most who find their way to the shores of Southwest Florida is the eco-tourism. The county’s natural resources, from beaches to preserves to fishing, bring people in from around the world.

Then there’s the issue of water quality, which has been the major threat to tourism in recent years.

“In my opinion, it (Conservation 20/20) can only help to keep an interest in the environmental health we have because these acquisitions play into the water quality, the overall natural environment” Forsyth said. “It’s the main reason why people come here.”

As the program grows and matures, issues will become apparent that few, if any, ever considered when the program was in its mere infancy.

Questions do arise, such as, can the money be redirected to different areas in the county? Given the economic crunch, would Lee County Human Services be better served?

Commissioner Brian Bigelow raised concerns during the same meeting on Sept. 30 that 20/20 lands were knowingly being purchased with potential county road projects already planned.

“We seem to have acquired land with this program and the final analysis for a different purpose,” Bigelow said on the 30th. “Not that we don’t conserve the land as the program intends. But we find ourselves using this program in a way that is not altogether black and white as the voters approved.”

Forsyth was quick to dispel any notion that purchases were made as road right of way acquisitions under the guise of the 20/20 program.

She said that 30 or 40 percent of all purchases are identified as potential road necessity projects at a later date, though it doesn’t mean a road will be built.

“Usually a road has already been identified to be widened in the future. 20/20 comes along later in the process,” Forsyth said.

Its been more than 30 years since the Six Mile slough and Forsyth marveled at how much time has passed since the day when she stood before county commissioners.

She hasn’t kept in touch with anyone from that Monday Group; people grow apart, things change, life takes over.

The past’s road to her current position is not lost on Forsyth, who has more of an impact on county land then she ever thought she would.

“When I stop and think about it I find myself saying, it can’t be that long ago,” She said. “But it kind of feels like I came full circle.”

Brian Bigelow did not return call seeking comment.