The Lee County Board of County Commissioners this week said no to a proposal to tap tax dollars intended for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.
Despite the continuing challenge related to revenues, the rejection of any bid to reallocate Conservation 20/20 funds was sound- the citizen-initiated program is one of Lee County's most enduring success stories.
The county's website, www.conservation2020.org , provides both a history and updated information on the program:
Concerned that only 10 percent of Lee County's lands had been designated for preservation, a group of residents proposed in 1994 that the county buy target properties and set them aside for future generations.
The group formalized under the Conservation 20/20 name the next year and, in 1996, proffered a proposal to the voters of Lee County - that they agree to tax themselves for the purchase of lands deemed environmentally sensitive.
Voters agreed and a .5 mill tax - 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value - was implemented. Ninety percent of the money raised is allocated for land purchases from willing sellers only; no costly "takings" through eminent domain. Ten percent is set aside for ongoing maintenance and necessary restoration.
To date, 107 properties have been acquired. They total some 24,040 acres among 42 preserves throughout the county including multiple preserve areas in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva as well as preserves on Fort Myers Beach, Boca Grande and outside Lehigh Acres.
It's a tax initiative that has produced very tangible results for those who fund the program with the vast majority of the properties purchased available for passive public use, such as hiking and bird watching.
Like many government programs, Conservation 20/20 has received its share of criticism - that the county has overpaid for some sites, that not all are exactly "pristine" wild lands, that the program has been carried beyond the voter-OK'd seven-year benchmark without another ballot box initiative.
Some Cape Coral officials recently have claimed that the city has not received its fair share of land purchases and so the Cape should somehow "opt-out" of the program.
Some of these points have merit, but a couple of points for clarification:
Cape Coral, a pre-platted community with far less than "its share" of potential preservation areas due to how it was developed, has benefited greatly from its 20/20 contributions.
There are two primary 20/20 funded preserves in Cape Coral. One is the Yucca Pens Preserve, a five-parcel, 231-acre site on the east side of Burnt Store Road in the north Cape purchased for $1.65 million in 1999. The other is the Yellow Fever Creek Preserve, a two-parcel, 240-acre site off Del Prado Boulevard, also in the north Cape, purchased for $3.32 million in 2001.
While it can be argued that there are few remaining parcels strictly suitable for 20/20 purchase within the city limits, Cape Coral taxpayers still continue to benefit two ways from the program. Maintenance of the lands, which includes exotic plant removal and restoration, remains a county responsibility. These preservation areas, by their nature, also have regional impact.
For example, while the Alva Scrub Preserve is not located within Cape Coral, the city will benefit from the 20/20 land purchase if it avails itself of the county's offer to use that land as one component of required scrub jay mitigation the city must perform before it can develop its festival park, purchased for $27 million plus.
So there are direct and indirect benefits to Cape taxpayers contributing to the countywide program.
Any bid to somehow "opt out" should be nixed as should any attempt to back-door the program's demise by "bringing it back to the voters" in hope the program will go away and the county can then raise property taxes by the half mill without, to use politic-speak, "raising taxes."
If voters see no benefit from the program, if they no longer see value in paying the levy, we assure our concerned officials at both the county and city level that they will do as taxpayers are wont to do, that they will do, in fact, what they did back in 1995 and '96.
That's petition the commission and ask that the program be put on the ballot so they can vote their mind.
Until then, leave the Conservation 20/20 program alone, it's not a potential cash cow but a program our children - and their children - will benefit from far into the future.
- Breeze editorial