In 1996, when a group of concerned citizens realized that Lee County was well on its way to becoming a smaller mirror-image of the overly urbanized Florida east coast, they launched a campaign to protect lands essential for water supply and wildlife - resulting in Conservation 20/20. However, Lee County's land protection policy funding is now in jeopardy. The Lee County Board of County Commissioners is currently looking to take next year's tax dollars earmarked for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands to help make up a shortfall in the general fund for Lee County operations. Safeguarding our quality of life is paramount, and shouldn't be sacrificed in order to redistribute future Conservation 20/20 funding to cover temporary budget shortfalls.
The Conservation 20/20 program has always enjoyed strong public support, successfully conserving 24,872 acres of environmentally sensitive lands with funding from an ad valorem property tax approved by voters. That said, Lee County still only ranks No. 39 of 67 counties in total land area conserved. While Conservation 20/20 has been instrumental in reducing flood insurance costs in Lee County by 25 percent, properties in the Density Reduction Groundwater Resource Area that are essential to protecting public water supply and water quality - such as the 4,000-acre Edison Farms - are still at risk of being inappropriately mined or developed..
Smart growth requires resources to buy land not suitable for intense development, offering willing sellers an alternative to inappropriate land use intensification. Without continued funding of the Conservation 20/20 program, Lee County is at risk of increased urban sprawl, further depletion of its water supply and continued degradation of its water quality, jeopardizing the very quality of life that supports its primary economic drivers - tourism and real estate.
While the quantity and cost of acquisitions have varied over the program's life based on market conditions, the program has always received independent appraisals from licensed appraisers to protect the public's investment in paying fair market value. This also ensures that landowners are treated equitably - fairly recognizing their property rights and encouraging continued participation in the program.
Despite following these best practices in obtaining independent appraisals, the program has been criticized for paying too much during the real estate boom - resulting in two acquisition "freezes" - one in 2012 and one in 2013. Now, as a consequence of the program having accumulated monies from those freezes, the available funds are fueling claims that future funding can be redistributed for other purposes without compromising the program's objectives. However, the voters who supported those taxes being levied in the first place trusted that they would be used for conservation purposes only.
Safeguards need to be put in place to protect 20/20's current and future funding, with the Lee County Board of County Commissioners giving policy direction to the staff and updating the 20/20 ordinance accordingly. The Board of County Commissioners now holds the public's trust in their hands, and we encourage the Board to ensure that the dollars approved by Lee County voters for land conservation are in fact used for that purpose.
Please come and voice your support for continued funding of Conservation 20/20 to the Commissioners at the upcoming Public Budget Hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 5 p.m. at the Board of County Commissioner's Chambers, 2120 Main St. in Fort Myers, so we can advocate together to protect Lee County's land, water, wildlife and future.
--Marisa Carrozzo is a natural resources specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida