October 24, 2016
Supporters of a non-binding Conservation 20/20 referendum say endorsement of the program is important to its future.
Supporters of Lee County's Conservation 20/20 program say they are optimistic that the 20-year-old initiative will be endorsed by the voters on Nov. 8, the first referendum on the environmental land buying program in two decades.
First adopted in July 1996, the program has been revised, most recently in 2015. It is currently funded by a contribution from the county's general property taxes. Since its founding, more than 25,000 acres of land have been acquired and preserved.
The referendum is non-binding, and there is no apparent organized opposition. The 20/20 program can't be halted by a negative vote on the ballot question, but supporters are concerned that tepid public support could lead to an eventual weakening of the program.
Jane Bunch, a volunteer naturalist for the Lee County parks and recreation department, said the message supporters of 20/20 want to get to voters is that land conservation is important as the county continues to grow at a rate that could mean doubling the population in the next quarter-century.
"All of those people who are expected to come here, where are they building their houses, where is their drinking water going to come from," Bunch asked. "All of those places that historically flood in Lee County, are they going to be put into the land bank?"
Some individual opposition has surfaced,.District 3 county commission candidate Sonny Haas opposes the program, saying it diverts money that could be kept in the economy for economic development "to spend millions of dollars buying up cow pastures."
The conservation land program sets aside a half dollar on the tax rate to fund land acquisitions, which are voted by the county commission based on recommendation of an advisory committee that grades the land on several criteria. The factors considered in a land purchase include preserving drinking water resources, storing storm water runoff to prevent flooding, preserving wildlife habitats and making wilderness areas available for passive recreation.
Bunch says the program has saved some Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource areas, considered important to recharging and filtering public drinking water. But, she said, there is still danger from potential encroachment, such as a brief flirtation with building a Bonita Springs high school near the Pine Lake preservation area.
"The reason why that parcel was acquired was because it is one of the parts of east Bonita Springs that historically was flooded, it is a place for all that stormwater to be diverted to," Bunch said.
Currently the county has $89 million in its 20/20 fund and must designate some funds for the "perpetual management and public access" to the conservation land. A handful of proposed acquisitions are pending under a rule that requires appraisals to be performed to guide negotiations.
While the fund is earmarked for land acquisition and management, a $47 million county budget deficit at the depth of the Great Recession led to a controversial decision to use $26 million in the land acquisition fund to help balance the county budget.
County Commission chairman Frank Mann calls the 20/20 conservation effort "the most important program under the Lee County umbrella" in terms of what it will be mean 50 years from now.
"As long as the growth continues at a breakneck speed and level that it has for the last 40 years except for the six years for the recession, there's always going to be a need for the 20/20 program or every last acre of Lee County will be wall-to-wall concrete."
Supporters take the program seriously and say they want to guard against any perception that the program is losing public support by driving a substantial margin in the election.
"It indicates public interest," Burch said.
Text of 20/20 referendum:
Do you approve of Lee County continuing to use general revenue funds to acquire, restore, improve and manage land for conservation surface water management, water quality, water recharge and supply flood control, wildlife habitat, passive public recreation and open space purposes, pursuant to Lee County Ordinance 15-08 commonly known as the Lee County Conservation 20/20 Land Program?