20/20 Hindsight; 20/20 Vision

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    Conservation 20/20 Referendum on November Ballot

    Conservation 20/20 is Lee County’s environmentally-sensitive land acquisition and stewardship program, initially approved by voters in 1996. It preserves and protects critical parcels for drinking water, nature-based recreation, flooding areas and wildlife habitat to benefit present and future generations. Last year Lee County Commissioners decided to place Conservation 20/20 as a non-binding referendum on the November 8, 2016 ballot to let voters decide if it should continue, though the Board is not bound by the outcome.

    A “yes” vote means you approve of Lee County using general revenue funds to acquire, restore, improve and manage land for conservation, surface water management, water quality, water recharge and supply, flood control, wildlife habitat, passive public recreation and open space purposes according to Ordinance 15-08, known as the Lee County Conservation 20/20 Land Program. A “no” vote could alter the current ordinance and any possible future funding.

    A nonbinding referendum is a poll to understand the will of the voters. The original 1996 vote was nonbinding as well and for seven years, but the County Commissioners continued it annually. The 20/20 referendum has no direct impact on your millage rate. The Lee County General Fund millage rate has remained at 4.1506 since 2008. Voting “Yes” will not increase the millage and voting “No” will not decrease it, but a “No” will most likely end Conservation 20/20.

    The Town Council of Fort Myers Beach voted unanimously at its June 20, 2016 meeting to endorse the Conservation 20/20 referendum.

     

    Two Decades of Preservation

    2016 marks the 20th anniversary of local voters approving the Conservation 20/20 program that began in 1994 when a land use study determined that Lee County saved just 10% of its land for conservation. This was the lowest among Florida’s Gulf counties, with most at that time averaging 21%. A group of concerned citizens recognized this crucial moment to determine the county’s future and coined the term Conservation 20/20 to depict a vision balanced between necessary growth and native land preservation.

    In 1996 Lee County voters passed the nonbinding referendum to fund a conservation land program through an ad valorem property tax. It received management and restoration moneys through Lee County’s continuation budget off a five-year projection, and rolls over unused funds into the next year. The Board of County Commissioners created a 15-person citizens advisory committee called the Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee, or CLASAC, to help direct the initiative.

    Lee County updated and amended Conservation 20/20 over the years to protect its financial existence; it currently holds roughly $89 million. New regulations make it easier to purchase land; in the past only willing sellers could negotiate, now Lee County can approach them. Purchases protect drinking water, wildlife, and flood control, with over 20% of Lee either under local or state conservation control today.

    Renewed citizen validation is important because three years ago Commissioners used about $26 million of the 20/20 money to balance the budget because of significant shortfalls resulting from the Great Recession. These funds saved several critical programs that faced elimination or significant cuts that would jeopardize thousands of residents. This, however, angered many who considered it a raid of conservation money, even though there was over $90 million in the fund, with only $2 million actually spent in the immediate years.

    As for acquisitions, each submitted property goes through a two-step review before Lee County decides to pursue it, with CLASAC recommending which lands to buy. CLASAC conducts four meetings throughout the process, taking approximately one to two months for the initial screening and an additional one to two months for the secondary review.

    The initial step screens properties for acceptability and informs the landowner in short order if it will receive further purchase consideration based on an 8-point policy of the land’s environmental sensitivity, water resources, and imminent danger of alteration, among other items. The secondary review is a physical site visit. CLASAC scores parcels according to size, contiguity, habitat for plants and animals, significance for water resources, ease of management, recreation potential and development status.

    Based on these determinations, CLASAC forwards the parcel to the County Commissioners for potential acquisition or rejects it. If CLASAC advises purchase, County Commissioners will receive and review its recommendations before authorizing County Lands staff to negotiate.

     

    $300 Million for 24,931 Acres

    Since Conservation 20/20’s inception, over $300 million in taxpayer dollars have been used to acquired 124 properties in 45 preserves that protect 24,931 acres, from barrier islands to upland habitat, wetlands to buffer land, rivers and streams, with over 30 miles of hiking trails. Preserves are open to the public for hiking, wildlife observation and nature photography, with several offering fishing, kayaking, canoeing and horseback riding.

    On Fort Myers Beach $1.4 million in Conservation 20/20 money was used for Matanzas Pass Preserve at 198 Bay Road, behind the Beach Elementary School, on January 20, 2006, to expand the site that the Nature Conservancy donated to Lee County in 1993. Matanzas Pass Preserve includes mangrove forest that borders the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, as well as an historic cottage, boardwalks, canoe and kayak landing, bird watching, fishing, geocaching, and 1.25-mile trail through the canopy of mangroves and oak hammock. Conservation 20/20 also allocated $6,380,000 to acquire the nearby 718 acres of the San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve on August 30, 2001.

    Lee County Parks & Recreation oversees Conservation 20/20 properties through land management plans, enhancing natural plant community and wildlife habitats, exotic plant and animal control, hydrologic restorations, prescribed burns and native plantings. They design and maintain all park-like amenities, spending $4 million annually including staff and equipment costs.

    The Conservation 20/20 referendum is the citizen’s opportunity to decide Lee County’s long-term economic and environmental sustainability, and quality of life by protecting its exceptional natural resources, and by validating the program’s very existence.

     

    Gary Mooney