News Press

December, 10 2013

Lee County voters may sway Conservation 20/20 land deals

By Cynthia Roldan

Lee County residents could determine the future of the county’s conservation land program as early as next year.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners met Tuesday for a work session to discuss the status and the future of Conservation 20/20. The session was at the county’s administration building, with the hopes that the informal setting would provide for a more open discussion.

Commission Chairman Larry Kiker started the session by saying it was meant to allow for commissioners to sit back and relax, and understand the information and understand one another’s thoughts.

After listening to several conversations, commissioners spent most of their time debating if and when the program’s future should go before voters, and whether commissioners should be involved earlier in the process when acquiring land.

Is there any possibility of getting the commission to pre-approve a price before it is sent back to be negotiated,” said Commissioner Frank Mann.

Commissioners had a mixed reaction to his request.

Commissioner Brian Hamman said the commission’s biggest concern is to ensure the county pays a fair amount for conservation land. Kiker sided with Mann.

We absolutely need to be at the front end of the project,” Kiker said. “I was elected to take care of people’s money. I’m here for it.”

Commissioners John Manning and Cecil Pendergrass disagreed. Manning said he didn’t agree with micromanaging the process.

I personally don’t want to be involved in that,” Pendergrass said. “That’s why we have appraisers.”

Pendergrass said having commissioners involved earlier in the process could affect the public’s perception of the program.

Time did not allow for the discussion of all of the topics on Tuesday’s agenda. The date for a follow-up work session has not been set.

No maintenance

Among other items discussed, commissioners learned that if no additional cash is allocated toward the program, there will be no money left for the maintenance of already purchased land.

There’s just over $32 million in the county’s coffers to cover maintenance. The program’s operating budget is $1.5 million a year. That number is expected to increase to just over $2.3 million a year if the county acquires several properties it’s negotiating for. At that rate, staffers expect to run out of the $32 million in about 10 years.

Staff suggested adding to the 20/20 ordinance language that would call for an annual review of how far along in buying land and evaluate how much money should be allocated the coming year. Commissioners also said the sooner they could get a referendum about the program before voters, the better.

But they also agreed they may be cutting it close when aiming for 2014. Earlier this year, commissioners made the decision to use 20/20 money to plug their budget shortfall. To restore the public’s trust, Pendergrass said the future of the program should be left up to the voters.

Either election works,” Pendergrass said. “The concern is timing, making sure we have a policy in place.”

If it’s up to many of the voters who attended the meeting, however, the program may see its end soon. At least a dozen county residents spoke at the work session. Many favored conserving land, but more felt it’s time to sunset the program.

This program is no longer a good thing,” said Archie Taghan, a Lehigh Acres resident who voted in favor of the program in 1996. “It continues to build no man lands that drain resources to maintain it ... Over 20 percent of the county is now in conservation land. How much is enough?”