Position us now for potential funds

By Steve Estes

Organizers last week turned in more than 690,000 voter signatures that could well force a plan for conservation land purchases in Florida onto the November general election ballot as a new Constitutional Amendment.

At one time very active in the conservation land purchase game, state leaders shifted priorities during the slack years and took a large chunk of money away from that program, not even funding land purchases in at least one year.

The thought of a voter-mandated land purchase program seems to resonate with Keys voters, 1,500 of whom signed the petitions to get the measure on the ballot.

The Florida Supreme Court has already approved the ballot language to be used, so it seems as though voters will see the issue on the November ballot.

Florida is home to one of the largest populations of endangered animal and plant species in the country. And for its size, Monroe County is home to one of the largest populations of endangered plants and animals in the state.

But the state is also home to some of the most environmentally sensitive ecosystems in the country, many of which are inextricably linked to our large coastal presence.

Despite federal efforts to steer human development away from sensitive areas, big-monied individuals and corporations simply deal in cash for new development deals that continue to eat away at lands needed to preserve the diversity of these sensitive ecosystems.

At one time the Florida Forever Program had three sizable target areas for state land purchases in Monroe County to get our environmentally sensitive lands off the potential development rolls. Those three programs targeted nearly 20,000 acres, and to date, just over 10,000 acres has been bought.

There are estimates that it could cost someone just over $57 million to finish purchasing the targeted areas, which sounds like a lot of money.

And for Monroe County it would be.

Proponents of the proposed amendment plan to pay for the plan by mandating that at least one-third of the revenues from document stamps be pledged to the program yearly. Every real estate transaction in Florida pays into the document stamp fund.

If lawmakers choose just a one-third contribution, it could generate $10 billion over the next 20 years to put toward conserving some of the most sensitive lands in the state.

While preserving ecologically sensitive lands for future generations seems to us, and many others, to be a rather reasonable road to travel, we’re sure there will be those who want more business tax cuts, or less health care,or want that desirable land to go toward Florida’s long-term growth model—which has been growth.

Under rules passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature back when the growth boom had so many worried that the boom was rampant and uncontrollable (and turned out to be) the voting populace must approve any Constitutional Amendment with a 60 percent plurality.

That move worked to narrowly defeat an amendment proposing that land use plan changes go to voter referendum, yet it also served to give credence to un-caged pigs and dyed animals.

So the 60 percent bar isn’t a simple hurdle to clear.

We tend to think that the proposal will pass the voter hurdle. It makes sense on many levels.

So what we need to do locally is position ourselves to be an Area of Critical State Concern priority for funding, using our plethora of endangered species as a bludgeon if need be to get the state Legislature on board to help us protect environmentally sensitive lands, and also help us avoid what could be tens of millions of dollars in takings cases when we run out of state-authorized residential building allocations in nine years.

We have a good argument for being one of the first in line to get land acquisition money. What we don’t have is a big, loud political voice since we’re so small compared to other Florida counties with pressing greenspace needs.

That means we don’t wait until the last minute. We get busy now.

Ah, wait. We have been busy.

In the next couple of months we expect the county commission to take a longer look at land acquisition programs, ostensibly to help us avoid that takings calamity down the road, as a result of a program staff has been putting together for more than a year.

We’re ahead of the game for a change.

The second thing we need to do locally is attempt to get as much land bought by state and federal agencies as is possible so at least we get some revenue for our coffers when that land is removed from the tax rolls.

This could be a big win for Monroe County.

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