Conservation 2020 Returns to Voters in November

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In 1996, Lee County voters overwhelmingly approved a program that would levy 0.5 mils (about $50 per $100,000 of assessed property value) on their property tax bills to pay for the purchase and maintenance of environmentally sensitive lands for conservation. Though the initial ballot language included a provision for the program to sunset in 7 years, the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) kept it going due to its popularity. That could all change this year, however, because in February the BoCC voted 4-1 (Frank Mann dissenting) to put the issue to the voters once more.

Conservation 2020 began in 1994 when a land-use study determined that only 10% of Lee County was set aside for the purpose of conservation. Statewide, the average for counties was 21%. Since this was at a time when Lee’s population was exploding and development rampant, a group of concerned citizens launched a grass roots effort to acquire 20 percent of Lee lands by the year 2020. In 1996, a voter referendum passed overwhelmingly and now, at it’s 20th anniversary, the program has spent more than $300 million to acquire, restore, conserve about and maintain 24,931 acres – a little less than 5% of Lee’s 520,629 acres. Including state and federal programs, Lee County currently has about 21% of its land in conservation.

While remaining popular, the program has not been without controversy.

In 2012, following an accusation from then Clerk of Courts Charlie Green that the county was spending too much on purchasing land for the program and a legal opinion from the County Attorney, the Board put the .5 mils back into the General Fund and used the approximately $26 million collected to balance the budget. This prompted a public outcry and the appointment of a Blue Ribbon Committee to improve the program, resulting in an ordinance in early 2013 amending the Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC) to include recommendations such as requiring a third appraisal should the first two differ by more than 20% and bringing all land acquisition decisions before the BoCC. CLASAC is the advisory committee charged with reviewing lands proposed for the program.

Last year commissioners once again changed the scope of the program when the Board began focusing on properties that improve water quality and quantity and allowed for the purchase of development rights. This drew the ire of some environmentalists – including former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, a big proponent of the program.

“The Board is now considering further evisceration of the 2020 program by changing the focus of a land conservation program to a water quality program,” Judah said in July of 2015. “Prior to the shortsighted decision by the County Commissioners in 1991 to repeal the Water Conservation Utility, the County had a program in place to fund maintenance and restoration of waterways that would ensure compliance with state and federal water quality standards. The Lee County Commission should consider the most cost effective and resourceful means of reinstituting the water conservation utility versus undermining the Conservation 2020 program to comply with water quality mandates.”

While supporters like Mann claim the program’s popularity makes holding another referendum unnecessary and could put the successful program at risk, other commissioners disagreed and decided to put the issue back to the voters in November. Now county staff is working on how the language will read on the ballot, and public input is being taken.

The county attorney’s first draft of ballot language reads as follows:

“Do you approve of Lee County continuing to use 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, as an essential government function, pursuant to Lee County Ordinance 15-08 (Commonly known as the Lee County Conservation 20/20 Land Program)?”

CLASAC’s recommended wording, as vetted by the county attorneys, will come back to the county commission for final approval at a future meeting. While that date has yet to be set, the county has until June to come up with the exact wording of the ballot question. The BoCC is taking public input on the wording of the ballot question, and readers can submit their ideas/concerns to colson@leegov.com.

Keri Hendry Weeg