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Find innovative ways to acquire sensitive land

January 25, 2011

In tough economic times, public officials often have to draw a line in their budgets between spending for a few essential programs such as education and law enforcement and spending for many desirable but nonessential initiatives. Although popular programs may suffer in this prioritization process, responsible officials put first things first and concentrate on protecting funding for critical services.

Florida's land conservation programs provide value for the state and enjoy broad public support. They rank high in the category of desirable spending. But with the state facing a budget shortfall of at least $3.6 billion and local governments struggling to maintain basic services despite declining tax revenues, conservation advocates are having a tougher time making the case for using scarce public dollars to purchase large tracts of land. Their cause is not hopeless, by any means -- polls consistently show that Floridians want to protect more land from development. But tight budgets will require land conservationists to adjust their strategy and show more creativity in tapping public and private funding sources.

The real estate crash made more land available -- in some cases, at bargain-basement prices. This is a point of frustration for environmentalists who see opportunities to expand public holdings through land-acquisition programs such as Florida Forever and Volusia Forever. However, it's unrealistic to expect large-scale acquisition projects to go forward when budgets for schools, health care and law enforcement are on the chopping block.

VolusiaCountymade a major commitment to conservation last year, but the decision was driven as much by budgetary concerns as the desire to protect land from development. In December, the County Council approved the purchase of the Leffler Ranch for almost $29 million. Faced with a state mandate to develop new water sources, county officials saw Deep Creek on the Leffler property as a cheaper alternative to building a treatment plant on the St. Johns River or a desalinization facility on the Atlantic Ocean.

Unfortunately, county officials had to empty the Volusia Forever account to pay for the land. Even so, the decision was in the best interest of local taxpayers. A large new tract of land was preserved -- and county residents should get a break on the long-term cost of water.

Now the principal challenge for conservationists is finding new ways to preserve land. It's a tough time to raise philanthropic dollars, but environmental groups may be able to make up some of the loss of public dollars. Also, conservation advocates and government officials can make arrangements with landowners to set aside undeveloped tracts. For instance, representatives of the proposed Farmton project agreed to keep 40,000 acres of that 59,000-acre tract undeveloped.

FlaglerCountyofficials have an innovative plan to raise money for land acquisition by selling credits for wetlands mitigation. Creative financing could help maintain the momentum of the preservation movement until the economy improves and tax revenues begin to refill public coffers.

Land prices probably will trail the economic recovery, which means good bargains may be available for at least the next five years. So conservationists would do well to look ahead and not spend too much time lamenting the current budget crunch.