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County modifies Conservation 20/20 land acquisition criteria

By Staff | Aug 21, 2018

After more than two dozen speakers asked Lee County commissioners to weigh in against a staff-tendered plan to modify the Conservation 20/20 land acquisition process, the elected board approved a change to how lands are evaluated for purchase while postponing its decision on when parcels may be submitted into the consideration queue.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to update the review criteria to more heavily weigh parcels that could result in water quality improvements.

The commission postponed a decision that would coincide land acquisition proposals with the budget process.

“This is the most important project Lee County has had or has ever had,” said Frank Mann, District 5 commissioner.

The Conservation 20/20 program was signed into action in 1996, and in 2016, supported with 84 percent of voters saying they support the taxpayer-funded initiative.

The program is designed for Lee County to buy and preserve wild lands that are home to many different kinds of wildlife and natural landscapes.

Since its inception, through Conservation 20/20, the county has acquired 28,978 acres on 130 properties and miles of shorelines arose the county.

Some major acquisitions include Edison Farms Preserve and Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.

The postponement of potential adopted criteria for these land submissions will include future workshopping of new ideas on how to improve the process.

District 3 Commissioner Larry Kiker said he wants county staff to improve on the policy aspect of the proposal, as he believes the plan highlights operation aspects.

“We all want to make this work. What’s key is if we can find the proper way to evaluate them and decide whether to buy them or not,” he told the staff.

The major components of the new changes would be to adopt a formal process for applications in an annual cycle to be evaluated and ranked by the county staff, not the Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee, which currently reviews parcels.

The commissioners agreed to a 100-point system to determine desirability, with 50 points available to parcels that have water resources in some fashion.

County staff explained the purpose of the changes is to find a way to better leverage acquisition funds and to respond to requests more efficiently – especially for the sellers who are waiting to hear whether the county wishes to obtain their land.

These changes would not effect 20/20’s funding or parcels, it is simply an evaluation and criteria change for applicants, proponents said.

A major turn-off for the commissioners was the idea of only reviewing nominations once a year, as opposed to the rolling cycle instituted presently.

All of the commissioners were vocal about their support of Conservation 20/20.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, residents urged no changes to the current structural components of the program and championed for an increase in funding.

Though water quality is a major issue currently across Lee County, the 50 points granted to all land involving water may result in unbalanced scales, especially for wildlife, such as burrowing owls, which may not live in aquatic conditions.

“I haven’t had one email saying ‘We need to change this because 20/20 is running amuck,'” said Mann. “What we’re contemplating could put the brakes on the program.”

“We have to review the process and make changes to line up with the economy and Lee County,” Kiker added.

Editor’s note: This story replaces the original post to correct and clarify the Commission’s actions.