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COTI urges passage of Amendment 1

By Staff | Oct 29, 2014

To the editor:

It’s been almost a year since volunteers on Sanibel and Captiva concluded a hugely successful petition drive to help ensure a place on the Nov. 4 ballot for Amendment 1, Florida’s Water and Land Conservation Amendment.

Volunteers from Committee of the Islands, the Sanibel – Captiva Conservation Foundation, the League of Women Voters of Sanibel and Audubon of Sanibel and Captiva all contributed to the effort. Statewide, nearly 1 million valid signatures were generated. Now, with the election just days away, we’ve got to keep that momentum going so that we surpass the 60 percent majority needed for passage.

In the years I’ve been living in Florida, I don’t think there’s been a more critical ballot measure than Amendment 1, and here’s why: The environment is in trouble.

Those of us who live on Sanibel and Captiva can see our water quality being degraded by excessive nutrient loading. We are experiencing toxic algae blooms that are unhealthy to humans and often deadly to wildlife. Last year, lack of fresh water during the dry season caused the loss of all the oysters and large areas of sea grasses in the Caloosahatchee estuary. Statewide, the situation is similar. Many natural springs, wetlands and rivers are not getting enough fresh water to stay healthy. Wildlife habitat, forests and wetlands so critically important to Florida’s economy and way of life are being lost.

Despite these threats to our environment, the state legislature has drastically reduced spending for conservation. Historically, with bipartisan support, the legislature had provided more than $400 million annually for water and land conservation. Since 2009, the legislature has all but eliminated that spending. Until very recently, the legislature even directed that no new land be acquired for conservation under the “Florida Forever” program unless an equal amount of “surplus” conservation land was divested. That ill-conceived program (recently suspended) almost resulted in the sale of part of Cayo Costa State Park – right in our own backyard.

Here’s how the Water and Land Conservation Amendment will help to rewrite the book on conservation in Florida. For the next 20 years, 33 percent of revenues from existing state “doc stamp” fees (fees paid when real estate is transferred) will be dedicated to funding the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore and manage conservation lands and protect water resources and drinking water sources. It will even provide funding for critical Everglades restoration. No new taxes will be imposed.

Doc stamp funds were historically used for conservation purposes until the legislature began diverting them to other uses. Under Amendment 1, the state would be required to allocate them for the purposes intended with no diversion to other uses.

The amount of money to be set aside for conservation under Amendment 1 will not have a material impact on the state budget. In fact, it would set aside less than 1 percent of the annual state budget for conservation. Since funding will be calculated as a percentage of doc stamp revenues, not a fixed amount, the funding allocated in a down economy would be reduced, as would funding for other needs as well.

During the petition drive, I recall that a couple of people questioned whether we should be legislating by amending the constitution. My answer was that the amendment process is part of the constitution. It vests power in the voters to act directly, especially when the legislature appears unresponsive to the public interest. Article II, Section 7(a) of the Florida Constitution states: “It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty. Adequate provision shall be made by law for the abatement of air and water pollution… and for the conservation and protection of natural resources.” What better reason for direct citizen action than failure of the legislature to uphold this constitutional mandate?

Don’t we owe it to future generations to assure that they will be able to enjoy the good water quality, natural places and wildlife that we enjoy – that have made Florida the special place it is? We at COTI think we do owe that to our children and grandchildren and that’s why we support Amendment 1 – the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment. To read our past commentaries on island issues, visit www.coti.org.

Larry Schopp

Committee of the Islands