Dozens of parcels of state-owned conservation lands, including nine on the Cayo Costa and North Captiva islands, are no longer facing the prospect of being sold - all thanks to a shift in focus.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced last week that it will cease its comprehensive land sale effort tied to the State Conservation Land Assessment and will instead focus on the potential sales of non-conservation lands to fund Florida Forever purchases in the future.
"We're done with the list and the large-scale process," DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said Tuesday. "Instead of looking at this large-scale effort, we're shifting to look at the non-conservation land."
Last year, the Florida Legislature allocated $20 million for Florida Forever, which is the state's conservation and recreation lands acquisition program. It approved spending up to an additional $50 million - funded by the sale of state-owned lands no longer needed for conservation purposes.
In response, the DEP organized the State Conservation Land Assessment. Months of evaluation resulted in 3 million acres of conservation land being pared down to roughly 5,200 acres. The list was further reduced based on legal and title issues, endangered species habitat and additional factors.
By October, approximately 3,400 acres remained on the chopping block, including the islands' parcels. Seven were on the south end of Cayo Costa, with the last two on the south end of Captiva. The DEP has since been trying to determine what could be deemed no longer needed for conservation purposes.
Then, a look at the state's non-conservation lands showed potential, according to Gillespie.
"It made more sense to focus on the non-conservation land that we could sell to purchase more conservation land," he said. "It just really felt like that was a more productive approach."
Non-conservation lands can include property or buildings, such as closed hospitals or prisons.
"Any kind of buildings that are leased to state agencies that are no longer needed," Gillespie said, adding that any unused or surplus lands can cost the state money to lease, manage and secure.
"It's getting those off of the taxpayer dime and being able to sell them," he said.
As of Tuesday, the DEP was already considering the sale of some non-operational prisons and hospitals, like the A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana, located in Palm Beach County.
"We already have some that are in the works," Gillespie said.
As per the shift in focus, state agencies have been asked to assess their resources and determine what they need to operate. For example, a relocation of staff or sharing of space may free up a building.
"A lot of times, it's also land - land that's zoned for different things," he said.
"The agencies let us know what they do or don't need," Gillespie said, noting that the DEP is the mechanism for buying and selling land for the state.
While no land sales resulted from the State Conservation Land Assessment, the method provided officials with insight into the land owned by the state and the present land management issues.
The government owns approximately one-third of all the land in Florida.
"This process really helped our staff," he said. "I think we learned a lot about the different characteristics of the land that we have across the state."
While no costs for the assessment were available Tuesday, Gillespie said it was "mostly staff time."
"This is something that had never been done in Florida's history," he said.
With the shift in focus to non-conservation lands, the DEP will also return to its original process of selling conservation lands - on a smaller scale with the involvement of the local community. Gillespie explained that a parks service or state agency will commonly notify the DEP of any available lands.
"That's been the typical process that we've used," he said.
Since 2000, Florida has sold roughly 3,000 acres, generating $14.5 million in revenue.
Visit the Florida Department of Environmental Protection online at: www.dep.state.fl.us/.