News-Press

December 13, 2016

 

Supporting the Conservation 20/20 legacy

John Cassani

http://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/2016/12/13/supporting-conservation-2020-legacy/95374198/

 

In 1996, Lee County was growing fast and at a cross roads of managing that growth. The county still had remnants of its earlier small town culture back then. Residents understood what quality of life meant in paradise and they had a gut feeling what might be coming that could change all that.

The population was about 400 thousand then and grass-roots activists were asking Lee County to adopt a conservation land program which was a relatively new concept at the time. Lee lagged behind most other coastal counties in the amount of land in public ownership. But, in startling contrast, Lee had enough land platted for future growth to rival even Pinellas County as having the highest population density of any county in the state.

The writing was on the wall. If something wasn’t done to mitigate growth, Lee would become a very crowded place. Slogans like “don’t east coast the west coast” were popular back then. There was opposition from land sellers and developers and similarly county commissioners were not eager to see a conservation land program happen, begrudgingly sending it to referendum.

On Nov. 5, 1996, the residents of Lee voted to tax themselves to preserve conservation land for the future, despite the opinion of many that a conservation land referendum would never pass. It wasn’t an overwhelming victory with about 53% in favor, but it did pass.

Jump 20 years and Lee is again at another cross-roads. The lure of paradise is still strong as ever and the population has increased by 280,000 residents to almost 700,000 as of 2016. The Conservation 20/20 program, until  2012, had purchased on average about 1,500 acres per year, dwindling to almost nothing more recently. Yet many still considered the program as Lee County’s best idea resulting in about 6 percent of the county acquired as parks and preserves and managed to the delight of its citizens.

But was it enough? Some argued it was and apparently convinced most of the Lee County Commissioners it was time to re-evaluate. Predictably, the program was again sent to referendum for validation. This time, however, the message from the people was an overwhelming affirmation that the program needed to continue. Eighty-four percent of the voting public during the general election voted in favor of putting more land in public ownership. On Nov. 8, no other environmental or similar referendum in the country had a higher plurality in favor than “Yes on 2020.”

With an additional 374,000 residents predicted to live in Lee County by 2040, representing an increase of nearly 1,300 per month, the mandate to sustain our land and water has become even more imperative.

Even those new to paradise had a gut feeling as they did in 1996 that something had to be done and this time there was no doubt about it.

John Cassani was a member of the grass roots group supporting the 20/20 referendum in 1996.