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Voters to decide 20/20’s funding fate

By Staff | Feb 19, 2016

Poponents say Conservation 20/20 is an important part of Lee County’s mission to protect pristine areas from development for the enjoyment of the people who live here.

However, the plan that was supposed to be in effect for seven years has now lasted 20, and Lee County commissioners believe it is time for the voters to decide whether the land purchase program should continue.

On Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to send Conservation 20/20 back to the voters in a referendum on the November ballot.

Only Frank Mann voted against the measure, saying he wanted to read the language proposed and feared that the popular program would be put at risk.

Interested parties, including Audubon and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, will now be asked to send the county attorney proposed language for the ballot question by June, a task that Commissioner John Manning said can be daunting.

“It has to be precise and correct. I think there’s a limit of 75 wards for the question and, hopefully, we can do it amicably,” Manning said.

Marisa Carrozzo, of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said they could look to other examples of ballot language and how the current 20/20 program runs today and how it needs to run in the future.

“Three critical components in any ballot need to be water resources, wildlife habitat and public recreation,” Carrozzo said. “It’s critical for quality of life and maintaining Lee County in the future.”

The property tax funded program was adopted by voters in 1996 as a way for Lee County to buy and steward environmentally sensitive land and its natural resources for the benefit of residents and visitors.

The original goal was for the county to acquire 20 percent of its land for conservation by the year 2020.

Since adoption, the 20/20 program, funded by a .5 mill property tax, has spent more than $316 million to acquire, restore and conserve nearly 25,000 acres, less than 5 percent of the county’s more than half-million acres.

“We have about 21.5 percent of county land under environmental control, but most of it is owned by the state or federally. We need to pick up the pace and buy more because we have maximum road credits coming up,” Manning said.

Manning said it was time to revisit the plan, as it’s been around long after 20/20 was supposed to sunset.

“It was supposed to sunset in seven years, but the board at that time decided to continue the program as part of the general fund just like any other division of county government,” Manning said, adding that it is unknown whether, if passed again, it will sunset again or be made a permanent part of the general fund.

“I think the voters felt they would get a say on whether they wanted the program to continue after seven years,” Commissioner Brian Hamman said. “I think when they decided to continue after seven years without voter input it was the first dent put into the credibility of the program.”

Many are confident that despite all the obstacles facing the referendum, the 20/20 question should pass the muster come November.

“The passing of Amendment 1 is a good indicator that Lee County residents are supportive of conservation land acquisition and management and recognize the importance of conserving sensitive land in the future,” Carrozzo said.

Hamman said the voters will have the opportunity to vote on a 20/20 2.0, so to speak, better than what it was 20 years ago.

“We have revised the program to focus on water quality, so it’s not just preservation, but making sure we have clean water going into our rivers,” Hamman said. “We’ve also added safeguards to protect the taxpayers from overpaying in property, making sure it meets the merits of the program.”