Pasco County recently bought 111 acres along the Pithlachascotee River for more than $1 million. [Photo: Michael Hancock]
For decades, highly populated areas like Hillsborough County and Pinellas County have operated taxpayer-funded land-buying programs to protect environmentally sensitive lands. As development in southwest Florida encroaches on once remote areas, other counties are taking similar action:
» Last fall, Charlotte County voters approved increasing their property taxes by two-tenths of a mill to back up as much as $77 million in bonds that will be used to protect land. The county won't begin collecting funds until 2008, but it can use short-term loans to purchase properties in the interim, says Andy Stevens, manager of Charlotte County's Natural Resources Division. While 38% of the county's land is already protected, not all of it is contiguous. Stevens says the county hopes to connect the pieces.
» In 2006, Lee County contributed $40 million to the state's purchase of Babcock Ranch. The funds came from Conservation 2020, the county's 10-year-old land acquisition program. Lee County has preserved 12,000 acres through its taxpayer-funded program.
» In Collier County, meanwhile, voters raised the cap on property tax revenue for their conservation land acquisition program from $75 million to $198 million. Since it first launched the program in 2002, the county has acquired 435 acres.
» In January, Pasco County made its first purchase under its 2-year-old program, buying 111.3 acres along the Pithlachascotee River for $1.1 million. René Wiesner Brown, who oversees the program, says the county has raised $4 million since 2005. Brown says Pasco County hopes to leverage its buying power by securing matching funds from state entities, such as the Florida Communities Trust, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and public and non-profit agencies. While the competition for such funds is increasingly competitive, Brown is hopeful. "It gives us a seat at the table."
Local land acquisition programs have protected 332,913 acres in Florida, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. The Florida Forever program has protected 535,643 acres since its inception in 2001.