Lee mulls shifting Conservation 20/20 focus to water management; boosting funding

Lee Herald Favicon 16Lee Commissioners considered possible changes to the way Lee County handles property assessment, acquisition, and funding for its Conservation 20/20 program during a workshop meeting on Tuesday.

Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 program has acquired more than 25,000 acres since its inception in 1996. In 2016, voters approved a continuation of the program by an overwhelming 84 percent majority. Most recently, the fund was used to purchase almost 4,000 acres of wetlands in Estero known as Edison Farms for $42.4 million in 2017.

“In 2017, you acquired the third largest group of acres in a single year since the beginning of the program,” County Manager Roger Desjarlais told commissioners Tuesday.

The county spent around $47.2 million to purchase a total of 4,080 acres in 2017, including a $600,000 contribution from a conservancy organization

Conservation 20/20 now has 28,979 acres spread over an inventory of 130 properties representing an investment of more than $349 million. Local governments hold 40,110 acres of conservation land and the state owns over 52,000. After including a mix of other public and private entities, a total 95,290 acres are held as conservation land – or about 21 percent of the land area of Lee County.

During the workshop, commissioners heard staff’s recommendation to overhaul the way prospective properties are evaluated. Under the new proposal, the county would move to a 100-point evaluation system, with a significant shift in emphasis on the property’s impact on water management, counting for more than double the points allocated to other categories like plant and animal habitats.

Commissioner Frank Mann said that while he agreed with increasing the importance of water management, he was concerned that it might come at the expense of other priorities like animal habitat or green spaces.

“I am still nervous about the additional weight in water criteria,” said Mann. “Everyone is in favor of water, and we understand that…but I want to take care that we don’t overdue that.”

The recent purchase of Edison Farms has left the acquisition fund for Conservation 20/20 somewhat depleted at around $44.5 million. County ordinance says that the fund balance should be maintained at no less than $40 million and no more than $100 million, and that when the fund falls below the threshold it is supposed to be replenished.

The proposed funding plan would spend an initial $3.5 million in 2018-2019 and another $3 million every fiscal year through 2023 in order to add an extra $15.5 million to the program’s coffers. That money would come out of the county’s current $84 million general budget reserves.

Commissioner Larry Kiker said that he was unhappy with the proposed $3 million a year and would like to see the county take a more aggressive approach to replenishing the program’s acquisition funds. Most of the other members agreed, but Mann said that the commission had not gone far enough to fund what he characterized as a very popular initiative, and that if something did not change, the program could be in jeopardy in the future.

“I think it’s just painting us into a corner and that paint isn’t going to dry for a long time,” Mann said.

The suggested changes are required to come in front of the board in an official proposal during a later meeting before a vote can take place.

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