TALLAHASSEE (Herald Tribune, 6/23/14)
After years of receiving little funding, Florida’s environmental land-buying program is making a modest comeback.
With the decision by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet last week to sell surplus state land — including four prison sites — the state land-buying initiatives, including Florida Forever, may have more than $50 million in 2014-15. It would be the highest budget amount for Florida Forever since 2008.
Yet even that funding represents only one-sixth of the $300 million Florida once had annually in its nation-leading conservation program.
Environmental advocates say the funding increase will help but they are still looking ahead to a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that will require the state to set aside a portion of the annual taxes on real estate transactions to pay for conservation programs.
Although the state will have more land-acquisition money in the coming year, the question remains how aggressively state officials will be in trying to negotiate conservation-land deals. Florida Forever funding has been largely at a standstill since the Great Recession, including the last two years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration and the four years under Scott.
“It was basically like they put a stop work order on Florida Forever,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.
Without a more aggressive land-buying initiative, environmentalists say the state may lose out on critical areas, such as protecting Florida’s natural springs, the Ocala National Forest-Wekiva River area, the Indian River lagoon and host of other environmentally important tracts across the state.
In Southwest Florida, some of the projects that hang in the balance are the Myakka Ranchlands project in Sarasota County, the Charlotte Harbor Estuary and Terra Ceia in Manatee County.
Yet, Draper and other environmentalists were on hand last week to praise Scott and the state Cabinet for taking several steps that could enhance the Florida Forever program.
State officials approved the sale of non-conservation property — including four former prison sites — to generate money for Florida Forever. The new budget allows up to $40 million of those land sales to go to land conservation projects and it would be coupled with $12.5 million in other state funding.
The governor and Cabinet also approved a new Florida Forever priority list with 45 potential projects.
And they unanimously agreed to buy a 156-acre tract in Lake County as part of the Florida Forever project to provide a conservation link between the Ocala National Forest and the Wekiva River area near Orlando.
“It is important that we invest in preservation of the state’s valuable natural resources like land and water so they are available for Florida families for generations to come,” Scott said. “I believe in being a good steward of state resources and believe today’s approval of the sale of certain properties and acquisition of conservation land are both win-win scenarios.”
But the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway purchase illustrates the incremental progress of reviving Florida Forever. The state bought the tract for $450,000, a bargain price made possible by the conservationists who acquired the land and then resold it to the state at a discount.
The 156 acres represents less than 1 percent of the remaining 23,000 acres in the overall Wekiva-Ocala project that has been targeted for preservation under Florida Forever.
“It’s hard to get up and cheer for a project that’s less than $1 million.” Draper said. “It’s the frustrating thing. Development is increasing. The land values are going up with the development pressure.
“We have this huge backlog of land to be protected through the Florida Forever program and it feels like in places where we should be spending a lot of money we’re spending a small amount of money.”
To put the overall Florida Forever list into context, Draper said he estimates the value of the potential purchases to be at $10 billion. “Fifty million dollars is just a tiny dent in the need,” Draper said, although he also estimated the state has more than $100 million in unspent Florida Forever funding from previous years that could also be used.
But Draper said there does seem to be a shift in the Department of Environmental Protection, which is under Scott, to considering more conservation-land acquisitions.
“We’re seeing a slow thaw in the Scott administration of their willingness to buy land,” Draper said. “We want to recognize that and cheer them on.”
The recession, the skepticism over the value of state land purchases from conservative critics and Scott’s own fiscal policy have all been part of the Florida Forever slowdown.
Scott has taken a hard line against more state borrowing, resulting in a record decline in Florida’s debt. But it has also meant the state is not issuing bonds for programs like Florida Forever, which it has historically done.
Environmental advocates are backing a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would require the state to annually set aside a third of the real-estate transaction tax to fund conservation programs like Florida Forever. If approved by 60 percent of the voters, the amendment would provide about $10 billion over the next decade.
This week, Scott declined to take a position on the land-buying amendment. “We’ll see how it comes out,” he said.
His likely Democratic rival, former Gov. Crist, said he hasn’t read the amendment but favors things “that help the environment.”
Draper said he believes candidates running statewide would gain more credibility with voters if they “recognize that people really care about our environment.”
Meanwhile, with signs that the Scott administration may look more favorably on Florida Forever purchases, Draper said he has recently been lobbying the DEP over a project in Collier County, the governor’s home county.
Within the last six months, Draper said conservationists saw “for sale” signs going up on a tract considered vital to the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, another project on the new Florida Forever priority list.
“The only way to keep that land from becoming another golf course development is for Florida Forever,” Draper said. “There is no other option.”
FOREVER . . . OR JUST FOR NOW?
Funding for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program has been on a fiscal rollercoaster ride since 2008.
• 2008-09: $300 million in bonds with $18 million in other revenue.
• 2009-10: zero funding
• 2010-11: $15 million
• 2011-12: zero funding, after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a legislative plan to raise $305 million through state land sales.
• 2012-13: $8.4 million
• 2013-14: $20 million plus up to $50 million from the sale of conservation land, which never materialized.
• 2014-15: $12.5 million plus up to $40 million from the sale of non-conservation state land, which appears to be happening.
Three Southwest Florida projects are on the new Florida Forever priority list for the 2014-15 budget year:
• Myakka Ranchlands in Sarasota County, with an estimated 11,239 acres that would be acquired by conservation easements. The project has been on the state list since 2007.
• Charlotte Harbor Estuary in Charlotte, Sarasota and Lee counties, with 6,874 acres projected to be acquired. The project has been a target of state land purchases since 1972.
• Terra Ceia in Manatee County, with 2,474 acres of potential purchases.by