News / Events

Conservation's catch-22: No money to buy more acres

BY DINAH VOYLES PULVER, ENVIRONMENT WRITER

January 23, 2011

Over 25 years, more than 200,000 acres of land was conserved in Volusia and Flagler counties, and now it recharges and protects underground water supplies, preserves room for wildlife and provides miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

Today, however, heralded state and local programs that provided millions of dollars to buy that land wait in limbo for more money. Meanwhile, great deals abound in the recessionary marketplace, sending agencies scrounging for spare cash and private nonprofits trying to pick up the slack.

"We are in a really ironic situation," said Jeff Danter, state director of the Florida chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

It's not just that land is for sale at reasonable prices; it's that the land is available for sale at all, Danter said. Many landowners are more interested in selling to the state now because times are hard and the trail of developers beating a path to their doors has virtually come to a halt.

"The economy is making the crown jewels of conservation in Florida available," Danter said, "yet the resources to acquire those properties have dried up."

Not everyone agrees that conservation land buying should move forward at the same speed. Speaking at a Volusia County Council meeting in December when the $28 million Leffler Ranch purchase was approved, resident William Brown asked the question, "Where does it stop?"

Activist groups, such as local 912 projects and others, also have questioned the need to spend tax dollars to buy more conservation land.

However, officials at the state and local level and several non-profit environmental groups say it's important to continue preserving environmentally sensitive land, particularly to link corridors of land already under public ownership or conservation. Both Volusia and Flagler counties still have wish lists of lands identified as important to preserve.

PRIORITIES MEET REALITY

Both counties and the state have many proposed purchases still on priority lists. Of 112 projects that were ranked a high priority in December by the state's Acquisition and Restoration Council, eight are in Volusia and Flagler counties.

That list includes the Wekiva Ocala Greenway, where The Nature Conservancy has a chance to buy 630 acres, called Hollywood Pines. The land, just west of Hontoon Island State Park near DeLand, is considered one of two crucial links in a corridor to provide a safe area for protected Florida black bears to roam. The conservancy is trying to raise the $500,000 purchase price via private donations.

Farther south along the St. Johns River, the Trust for Public Land would like to buy the old Lemon Bluff Fish Camp near Osteen to provide more access for boaters, but needs partners.

Once flush with $300 million a year, the state's Florida Forever program might have partnered on either project. The program and its predecessors led the nation, working with local governments to buy more than 2.4 million acres in parks, historic sites and environmentally sensitive lands.

"What we've done is remarkable," said Clay Henderson of New Smyrna Beach, a land-use attorney who has helped negotiate deals to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres statewide.

Then the economic recession hit. Last year, legislators put $15 million into Florida Forever. This year, observers say things look dismal. Money for the program came from fees charged when real estate documents such as deeds and mortgages were officially recorded. When the recession struck, the fees plummeted.

Local land-buying programs are in similar straits. In Volusia, voters agreed in 1986 and 2000 to tax themselves to buy land. But, the $28 million purchase of the Leffler Ranch in Osteen in December effectively zeroed out the money to be collected during the remaining 10 years of Volusia Forever.

Flagler also has limited funds, but is exploring a creative approach for raising more.

Private nonprofits would like to help, but the recession has also hit philanthropic dollars.

LIMITED OPTIONS

With hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of conservation lands remaining on local and state priority lists and little or no money, land acquisition advocates, governments and property owners are wondering where things go from here.

The conservancy's property, Hollywood Pines, has been on wish lists for years because it's considered a keystone piece in the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway. The property, which stretches from the Wekiva River, a tributary of the St. Johns, through Seminole, Volusia and Lake counties north to the Ocala National Forest, is a prime corridor for black bears.

To help draw attention to its efforts, the conservancy filmed a humorous video on the life of a bear in an urban area.

The video illustrates a more creative approach that many experts say will be required to continue preserving environmentally sensitive land in this economic climate.

"We have to be innovation-rich," said Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon of Florida. The land-buying programs still have broad public support, Lee said, but advocates need to be more creative at raising money.

Although Gov. Rick Scott has concerns about the state's restrictive growth-management policies, he has indicated support for land preservation, said Lee and others. They hope Florida Forever might get a little money, but know it won't be much. In a recent meeting, Scott "seemed genuinely interested in looking for a way to do it," Lee said, "but he seemed equally concerned it would be a tough thing to do."

Given the state's dire economic straits, it's going to be difficult to find money for a discretionary program when there are so many needs, said Robert Christianson, who oversees land acquisition and management for the St. Johns River Water Management District. "Until we see a general rebound in the economy, it's hard to imagine funding."

That leaves local governments studying other options.

In Volusia, the county is considering diverting part of the annual proceeds from the Volusia ECHO program to buy land along beaches and rivers. A sister program to Volusia Forever, ECHO funds environmental, cultural, heritage and outdoor projects. It was also approved by voters in 2000 and comes from a 20-cent tax on every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The issue was first raised last year, but the cultural community, which relies heavily on ECHO money, campaigned hard against it. The issue is still under consideration.

FlaglerCountystill has money -- about $1.2 million cash in its land program -- and expects to continue raising about $200,000 a year. But much of that money is obligated to make payments on bonds sold earlier to buy land.

So, Flagler officials have come up with their own creative financing plan. The county is working to get permits for a wetland mitigation bank. The county would restore wetlands on land it owns at Pellicer Flats and is seeking permission to sell credits to developers required to make up for damaging wetlands during construction projects. Telfer said proceeds from sale of the credits, which county officials say could be up to $19 million, would go back into land acquisition and management.

MORE OWNER PARTNERSHIPS

State and local governments also may look for nonprofits to play a larger role in acquiring land and work with landowners to secure easements to keep land open for water and wildlife, but allow landowners to continue farming and earn tax credits or incentives.

"I suspect that's a niche we may see more of going forward," Christianson said.

It's a role the groups have been more actively involved with in other states, said Henderson, an attorney with Holland & Knight in Orlando who specializes in working with private landowners to preserve their land.

"We've had a luxury here of having so much public money for acquisition over the last 20 years that we haven't seen as many charitable donations and land donations as you usually see in other states."

Lee said he also expects to see more efforts to work creatively with landowners during development to set aside conservation land.

He referred to plans for Farmton, where Volusia and Brevard counties worked with the Miami Corp., represented by Henderson and others, to negotiate an arrangement to place an estimated 40,000 of the 59,000 acres it owns in conservation.

Multiplying those acres by the prices paid for conservation lands of similar quality in Central Florida over the past five years, Lee said, could easily reach amounts well over a hundred million dollars.

Other possibilities include tapping into federal farm-bill money, designed to help keep property owners farming their land while protecting its ecological integrity. Advocates also want to help landowners make the most of newer state and local programs for tax credits and incentives for owners who donate or sell easements.

Given the limited resources, Danter and others said groups may have to pick and choose among the best of what's available.

For example, the conservancy is particularly concerned about protecting Hollywood Pines, to lock in the corridor for bears and wildlife before design begins in a couple of years for a new parkway to provide a northern beltway around Orlando.

"It's not about buying everything in Florida; it's about finishing important landscapes with key acquisitions," Danter said.

It's also important, he said, to protect the state's existing investments.

 


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