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Editorial: Preserve Conservation 20/20

By Staff | Apr 20, 2011

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners last week said no to a proposal to tap tax dollars intended for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.

Despite the continuing challenge related to revenues, the rejection of any bid to reallocate Conservation 20/20 funds was sound- the citizen-initiated program is one of Lee County’s most enduring success stories.

The county’s website — www.conservation2020.org‘>www.conservation2020.org — provides both a history and updated information on the program:

Concerned that only 10 percent of Lee County’s lands had been designated for preservation, a group of residents proposed in 1994 that the county buy target properties and set them aside for future generations.

The group formalized under the Conservation 20/20 name the next year and, in 1996, proffered a proposal to the voters of Lee County — that they agree to tax themselves for the purchase of lands deemed environmentally sensitive.

Voters agreed and a .5 mill tax — 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value — was implemented. Ninety percent of the money raised is allocated for land purchases from willing sellers only; no costly “takings” through eminent domain. Ten percent is set aside for ongoing maintenance and necessary restoration.

To date, 107 properties — including the 5,620-acre Bob Janes Preserve in Alva — have been acquired. They total some 24,040 acres among 42 preserves throughout the county, including multiple preserve areas in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva as well as preserves on Fort Myers Beach, Boca Grande and outside Lehigh Acres.

The four closest preserve areas to the islands are the Pine Islands Flatwoods Preserve (729 acres), Galt Preserve (264 acres) in St. James City, San Carlos Bay-Bunche Beach Preserve (706 acres) on Fort Myers Beach and Matanzas Pass Preserve (59 acres) on Estero Island off Fort Myers Beach.

It’s a tax initiative that has produced very tangible results for those who fund the program with the vast majority of the properties purchased available for passive public use, such as hiking and bird watching.

Like many government programs, Conservation 20/20 has received its share of criticism — that the county has overpaid for some sites, that not all are exactly “pristine” wild lands, that the program has been carried beyond the voter-OK’d seven-year benchmark without another ballot box initiative.

Any bid to somehow “opt out” should be nixed as should any attempt to back-door the program’s demise by “bringing it back to the voters” in hope the program will go away and the county can then raise property taxes by the half mill without, to use politic-speak, “raising taxes.”

If voters see no benefit from the program, if they no longer see value in paying the levy, we assure our concerned officials at both the county and city level that they will do as taxpayers are wont to do, that they will do, in fact, what they did back in 1995 and 1996.

That’s petition the commission and ask that the program be put on the ballot so they can vote their mind.

Until then, leave the Conservation 20/20 program alone, it’s not a potential cash cow but a program our children — and their children — will benefit from far into the future.

— Reporter editorial