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County moves ahead in negotiations over Babcock Ranch land

By Staff | Mar 24, 2009

Despite a suffocating budgetary crunch, Lee County commissioners vowed at last week’s meeting to push ahead with negotiations for 16 tracts of Conservation 20/20 land, one which is located at Babcock Ranch.
Conservation 20/20 Program Director Karen Forsyth said that while $15 million cannot fully fund the purchase of all 16 tracts, the commissioner’s decision to move forward begins a “three- to four-year purchase plan” that would allow Lee County to eventually own all 16.
“Given the budgetary situation, this is the first time in 12 years we’ve found ourselves in this situation,” she said. “We have so much more property than we have money.”
Commissioner Bob Janes expressed concern over moving forward on all 16 properties instead of focusing solely on Babcock Ranch, a property the county has been actively pursuing for several years, buying small tracts along the way.
“I don’t want the little projects to chip away at the money we do have,” he said.
Once envisioned as a full-blown residential and ranch complex, Babcock Ranch is available.
Owner Syd Kitson recently sold a large tract of the land to Charlotte County. The sale opened up the possibility of Lee County getting the remainder of the Lee County Babcock land at a deal, though the terms and size of the purchase are still up in the air.
Commissioner Frank Mann said he thinks the housing downturn should work in the county’s favor when it comes to Conservation 20/20 purchases, saying the “unique” economic times should force the negotiating process to be as competitive as possible.
Yet, Forsyth warned, with only $15 million available, Lee County does not have enough cash to purchase a large piece of land.
“Staff indicated that even if we zeroed in on one property, we don’t have enough money to go for one of those large tracts,” she said.
The Babcock Ranch purchase will receive some assistance in the form of a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the tune of $2.8 million. The grant is more of a refund than anything else, reimbursing Lee County for previous Babcock land purchases.
The refund has no baring on the budgeted $15 million for current purchases.
The future success of the Conservation 20/20 Program will live or die by the county’s budget problems. The county is facing a $100 million deficit for the 2009 to 2010 fiscal year alone.
Forsyth said that in addition to the 16 tracts Lee County is set to enter into negotiations for, the county has received 24 other nominations from property owners looking to sell their land.
“We continue to have nominations coming in,” she said. “We’re getting them on a daily basis.”