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Proposed Land Conservation Amdt. Pits Environmentalists Against Small-Govt. Advocates

A proposed Florida constitutional amendment setting aside money for land conservation pits environmental groups against small-government advocates. The state’s public-land purchasing budget has been slashed in recent years, with some lawmakers arguing that mandating an amount that must be spent on conservation makes no fiscal sense.

Natural Bridge Battlefield State Park is a half-hour southeast of the Florida Capitol building. Preston Robertson, the lawyer for the nonprofit Florida Wildlife Federation, explains that the state owns and manages the park. But north of here the river flows through land owned by the St. Joseph Lumber Company. Purchasing that waterfront land is among the top priorities for a council that recommends land purchases under the state program Florida Forever, he says.

Environmental groups say the land-buying program is crucial to protecting the state’s drinking water supply and preserving natural beauty that attracts big tourism dollars. Aliki Moncrief is director of a group called Florida’s Water and Land Legacy.  She says money for projects like the St. Marks River Corridor preservation hasn’t always been hard to come by, adding that when Florida Forever began, its budget was $300 million a year. But that amount was zeroed out under Governor Charlie Crist and has inched up ever since.

“Every single Florida governor has stood behind and understood the value of preserving land today so that we can preserve a beautiful Florida tomorrow. In 2009 that changed,” she says.

The Great Recession and the housing market crash had a lot to do with it. Money for Florida Forever came from a tax on real estate transactions.  But when the housing market cratered, the shrinking number of transactions sapped the land fund too.

The proposed solution: a state constitutional amendment earmarking a third of all property-exchange tax revenue for conservation. Moncrief’s group has about a quarter of the signatures it needs to get the measure on next year’s ballot and she notes voters have passed five of the last six conservation amendments attempted. Polling shows overwhelming public support for the idea, too.

But state Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) says, “They’re polling a population that has been grossly uninformed.”

Hays, who represents parts of Orange, Marion and Lake Counties in Central Florida, plans to reintroduce a bill this coming session that requires state and local governments to sell lands before they can buy more. He says there’s such a thing as too much conservation land.

“We should not have a specified dollar amount nor a specified acreage amount that we should acquire. That is irresponsible,” he says.

Hays says, with roughly five million acres of conservation land, the state has become a hoarder, and he wants a stricter accounting of how purchased land will be used and what it will cost to maintain it. He says the goal is smarter planning, not simply getting rid of as much as possible.

“It’s just wrong to use dollars that could be used for healthcare or for education or for transportation just so we can buy some property that somebody says, ‘Oh, yes, I’d love to take $6 million or $8 million of the state’s money for this piece of property that I paid $200,000 for.”

For now, this year’s budget allows the state to purchase up to $70 million dollars’ worth land to protect, but only if it first sells $50 million dollars’ worth of land. State Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) says the sell-in-order-to-buy system is emblematic of the state’s policies encouraging private development at the risk of the environment.

“It’s from the governor down this mandate for them to rubber stamp things unless there is an utter crisis. That’s not the tradition we’ve had here. We have pristine oceans and rivers, our springs we’re having difficulty with, and we need an agency that’s going to be on top of this, not wait for a crisis and react,” Soto says.

Soto plans to hold legislative hearings investigating the firings of four Department of Environmental Protection lawyers who were in charge of enforcing environmental regulations. He says if the department is found to be incapable of performing its purpose, he’ll seek more federal oversight.  

All of the state’s conservation land will be scored using a model developed by the Trust for Public Land, which used criteria developed with the help of other environmental groups. But Land and Water Legacy’s Moncreif says the state shouldn’t be selling any land.

“I think it’s great that the Department of Environmental Protection is offering the environmental and the conservation community seats at the table,” she says. “I think at the end of the day, the science of what these lands are and why we acquired them in the first place is going to stand the same.”

The state will hold public hearings later this month in Tallahassee to discuss the proposed land sales. Public workshops across the state will follow before any sale is finalized.