State's top officials consider fate of Florida Forever
By James Call
Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet Tuesday approved a five-year plan for Florida Forever, an environmentally-sensitive land buying program. James Call reports the action was mostly ceremonial because Florida Forever does not have money to buy and protect land.
For about 30-years Florida aggressively identified and purchased land for preservation. For more than two decades lawmakers provided 300 million dollars annually to take land off the market that was either threatened by development or served as habitat for endangered species. The conservation land buying program did not survive the Great Recession. So, when Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Hershel Vineyard presented a five-year plan to the Cabinet he acknowledged the proposal was not realistic.
"There's over $11 billion dollars in projects here and I think we got $12 million in the bank. And uh, so uh, I told my staff when I got briefed on this yesterday this reminds me a little bit like when the Sears Christmas Catalog would come out I would open up the pages and I would circle every BB gun and football helmet but that wasn't a realistic wish list."
Florida Forever has its roots in the 1980s. A variety of programs evolved into what is recognized as one of the nation's premier environmental programs. The state has set aside 667,000 acres of wetlands, uplands and forests for conservation. As of December, Florida had spent $2.8 billion to prevent development of what local visitors' bureaus call wild Florida and natural Florida.
Much of the money to buy the land came from a documentary stamp tax for real estate purchases; when the housing market collapse the revenue stream for the program stopped flowing. In 2010 state budget cuts resulted in no money to buy land. This year there was $15 million, but next year again no money. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is a member of the Cabinet which oversees Florida Forever.
"Well, we're not going to see that type of doc stamp activity that generates $300 million a year for the near term. I certainly hope the state economy recovers quickly and we get back to a level we were in the mid-90s. But certainly we are a number of years from the peak of that of that funding. And so let's get creative about how we can continue to acquire environmentally sensitive land even though much of the revenue has dried up."
Putnam is a floating an idea he calls a win-win for the environment and cash strapped rural counties. He explained in some cases land was included in purchases that can be sold and the money used to buy more sensitive land.
"Get land back on the tax rolls but you can still prevent it from ever being developed by the state retaining development rights. But get into agriculture, get it in timber, get it into conservation private conservation, like hunting leases and stuff like that. And it's a win, win for everybody. You're not having intensive development up against the conservation area the state can prevent that from happening but still get it back on some of these rural tax rolls that are hurting."
DEP has identified 24 thousand acres that Putnam said could be used to generate money for environmental preservation.