Guest Commentary: Lee County dedicated to Conservation 20/20 program
There have been some great things happening recently with Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 program. Thanks to the hard work of county staff and enhancements to the program that allow us to pursue strategic properties, the Board of County Commissioners approved the purchase of three new parcels last week and is moving forward with plans for a 4,000 acre property near the Village of Estero known as Edison Farms. The process of purchasing land for conservation can be complicated, so I would like to explain a bit about how the process works and why most properties make it into the program and some don’t.
What became known as “20/20” actually began in 1994, after a land-use study determined that only 10 percent of Lee was set aside for the purpose of conservation. A grass roots effort to acquire 20 percent of Lee lands by the year 2020 was approved by the voters in 1996. As soon as the three properties are closed upon, more than 25,000 acres will have been purchased by the county and dedicated for conservation. Including state and federal preservation lands, this equals about 21 percent of Lee’s total land amount.
Lee voters initially approved a tax levy of .5 mils on property tax bills to pay for the purchasing and maintaining of environmentally sensitive lands for conservation. Though the initial ballot language included a provision for the program to sunset in seven years, the Board of Lee County Commissioners kept it going due to its popularity, and this past year they approved a referendum that you again voted 84 percent to continue the renewed program. Plainly stated, going forward this program will no longer be managed as an exception, but rather as the way Lee County does business for conservation, preservation and water quality. A great place for all of the different interests to reenergize with a common goal.
In 2012, the BOCC was concerned about paying too much for property using this program. An ordinance was created requiring a third appraisal for all appraisals that differ by more than 20 percent and brought all land acquisition decisions before the BoCC. In addition, guidelines that required only willing sellers was removed so that the county could focus on strategic properties that fit into the overall strategic plans for the program, which expanded requirements for improving water quality county-wide. What has changed is that we are now able to pro-actively pursue target lands for purchase. They must still be “willing to sell” as we are not including eminent domain.
Over the last five years, only one property was rejected by the board, and that was due to the price being too high.
Just last week, the BoCC unanimously approved the purchase of three new parcels: 12.24 acres in North Fort Myers that will be folded into an existing 20/20 preserve, 91.71 acres along the Caloosahatchee River that will be used for recreation and for a filter marsh, and 7.88 acres on Sanibel that will become part of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge. Last September, commissioners acquired a critical piece of land on Cayo Costa Island that will become part of Cayo Costa State Park.
There has always been a big push to purchase Edison Farms. Thanks to the program enhancements enacted two years ago, the BoCC placed the eventual acquisition of that property as a legislative priority in hopes of utilizing Amendment One dollars and/or Forever Florida. When it was discovered that the compressed time allowed for anyone to make an offer and the requirements to qualify for those funds made it prohibitive, the board went into action. We are currently waiting for the three required appraisals to be completed. Staff is now working with the seller who has presented a serious commitment to conservation in Lee County. More on that later!
We are also discussing the purchase of additional sites and continuing our efforts with hydrological restoration and new public recreational amenities on existing preserves.
All of these properties have come to us as the result of thousands of hours of staff time spent researching, negotiating, budgeting and planning. These properties must not only be purchased, but also improved and maintained and – for those parcels slated to become preserves – made suitable for public use. The BOCC remains dedicated to seeing the process through so that each property represents a wise use of your taxpayer dollars and contributes to the greater wealth of the whole program.
-Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker