Fort Myers Beach Talk

March 24, 2017


Lee County commissioners approve three Conservation 20/20 purchases

News from the Fort Myers Beach Bulletin and Fort Myers Beach Observer


The Lee County Board of County Commissioners has unanimously approved the purchase of three new parcels for the Conservation 20/20 program.

The three areas are spread across Lee County: 12.24 acres in North Fort Myers, 91.71 acres in Olga, and 7.88 parcel on Sanibel.

The North Fort Myers parcel is $105,000 and is adjacent to an existing 20/20 purchase near Popash Creek. The Olga property is $2.6 million and is located along the Caloosahatchee. The Sanibel parcel, located on Wulfert Road will cost $2 million; the county will fund $1.4 million and the Friends of the Refuge raised the remaining $600,000, according to a press release from DDWS.

Conservation 20/20 is program funded by taxpayer dollars used to help the county acquire environmentally sensitive lands for preservation and conservation. Originally approved in 1996, it was renewed in 2016 with a supportive voter referendum - 84 percent of the county approved continuing the program.

"We are thrilled that the commissioners voted to use Conservation 20/20 funds to purchase this land, and that the society could help to make it possible," said Doris Hardy, DDWS board president, in a prepared statement following the commission's action on Tuesday.

The Sanibel land was zoned for five units and a boat dock, but now, the land will be forever held in conservation and serves an important role as a wildlife corridor to the refuge. According to the press release, DDWS is home to more than 80 species of marine and land life. The additional 7 acres provides habitat to mangroves, gopher tortoises, the American oystercatcher, reddish egret and many other endangered Florida natives.

The wildlife refuge agreed to take on the maintenance of the land for the county.

Besides the benefit to Ding Darling, however, the other Conservation 20/20 purposes will be serving critical needs, too.

A riverfront investment

The large property in the Olga area fronts the Caloosahatchee River and is a part of the watershed. It was originally zoned for a residential planned development in a suburban overlay, but now it will remain home to its creeks, pine flatwood and oak hammock habitats.

According to the county staff report, this piece could double as a water quality project, as it has space for water storage or a filtration marsh.

"Nothing is more important than our water at this point, Commissioners," said Barbara Manso, who represented the watchdog group, Eyes On Conservation 20/20 Coalition, during public comment. "I think this is a very happy day for us today it also tells us that your commitment to Conservation 20/20 is alive and well and I want to personally thank you for that."

The fallow farmland used to be a horse farm, and will need some serious restoration efforts to bring back in native plants and wildlife. County staff will also have to study the property to identify which part of the property will best serve as a filter salt marsh - a marsh planted with native species that suck up nitrogen, one of the biggest contributors to pollution in the river.

"The more we take out, the healthier the river will be," said Cathy Olson, Land Stewardship Manager for Lee County Parks & Recreation. She oversees the 20/20 program.

There was some concern from a few commissioners that this land was being looked at solely for water quality improvement efforts, but those kinds of project count in 20/20. The 20/20 ordinance was amended in 2015, making several changes, including allowing the county to actively pursue property rather than waiting for a seller to nominate their property to the program and adding conservation land that doubles for water quality-related projects into the program.

"When you're taking old, tired land and putting to use, it's a good opportunity," Olson said. "When the county commissioners revised the ordinance, water quality became an elevated concern. They wanted to look at adding water quality into 20/20."

Paying for the design and implementation of the salt marsh won't come out of the 20/20 fund.

Roland Ottolini, the county's natural resources director, estimated the marsh could cost around $4 million, but that number won't be solid until the marsh is designed and bidded out. He suggested the county can fund that project through the general fund and through other water quality funds, as it is a capital project. Olson said county staff has been very successful in getting grants for these kinds of projects, as well.

With a river-front advantage, the Olga property won't just serve water quality improvements. Olson said the property has lots of space for recreational uses, too.

The addition of the Olga property puts the 20/20 program over a benchmark - the county has now acquired more than 25,000 acres through the widely-supported Conservation 20/20 program.

Now that the county is going through with the acquisitions, staff will spend a year monitoring the properties as they are, Olson said.

"We see how it acts in wet and dry seasons, in between, see the wildlife there," she said. "We identify individual resources to be protected or enhanced."

Next is a management plan for the property. It takes two years or more before the land be developed with public access amenities like trails, facilities and parking - unless, like the Wulfert Road parcel, it will be managed by someone else. The North Fort Myers property is adjacent to the Caloosahatchee Creek Preserve, another 20/20 purchase that is already in the management plan stage. Since it is similar to that property, Olson said it can be folded into the other preserve's management plan. The Wulfert parcel will be managed by US Fish and Wildlife, through "Ding" Darling. The Olga property might take longer due to the water quality planning component.

District 3 Commissioner Larry Kiker saw the Olga property as an investment in the program.

"Many times we get ahold of properties that have been abandoned and are tired, if you will," he said, "We have to restore them. To me, this looks like a bigger purchase than just the property itself, it's a commitment with the program."