The Lee County Board of County Commissioners this week said no to a proposal to tap tax dollars intended for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.
Despite the continuing challenge related to revenues, the rejection of any bid to reallocate Conservation 20/20 funds was sound — the citizen-initiated program is one of Lee County's most enduring success stories.
The county's website, www.conservation2020.org , provides history and updated information on the program.
Concerned that only 10 percent of Lee County's lands had been designated for preservation, a group of residents proposed in 1994 that the county buy target properties and set them aside for future generations.
The group, formalized under the Conservation 20/20 name the next year, and proffered a 1996 proposal to Lee County voters: Tax themselves for the purchase of lands deemed environmentally sensitive.
Voters agreed and a .5 mill tax — 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value — was implemented. Ninety percent of the money raised is allocated for land purchases from willing sellers only. There are no costly "takings" through eminent domain. Ten percent is set aside for maintenance and necessary restoration.
To date, 107 properties have been acquired totaling 24,040 acres among 42 preserves throughout the county, including multiple preserve areas in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva as well as preserves on Fort Myers Beach, Boca Grande and outside Lehigh Acres.
It's a tax initiative that has produced tangible results for those who fund the program with the vast majority of the properties purchased available for passive public use such as hiking and bird watching.
Like many government programs, Conservation 20/20 has received its share of criticism — that the county has overpaid for some sites, that not all are exactly "pristine" wild lands, that the program has been carried beyond the voter-OK'd seven-year benchmark without another ballot box initiative.
Maintenance of the lands, which includes exotic plant removal and restoration, remains a county responsibility. These preservation areas, by their nature, also have regional impact.
There are direct and indirect benefits to taxpayers contributing to the countywide program.
If voters see no benefit from the program, if they no longer see value in paying the levy, we assure our concerned officials at the county and city level that they will do as taxpayers are wont to do, that they will do what they did back in 1995 and '96: Petition the commission and ask that the program be put on the ballot so they can vote their mind.
Until then, the Conservation 20/20 program alone remains a program our children — and their children — will benefit from.
— Gasparilla Gazette editorial