Five More Florida Counties Pass Land Conservation Referenda

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
BRADENTON — Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River, Nassau, and Polk counties all passed ballot referendums last week that will create local revenue sources dedicated to protecting environmentally sensitive land in their counties.

Similar to the Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum passed by Manatee County voters in 2020, the goal of such measures is to use public funds to acquire environmentally-sensitive lands that can then be protected from development. Such conservation helps to protect local waterways and drinking water sources, along with critical wildlife habitats, while also helping to mitigate flood risks by directing development toward urban centers and away from critical environmental resources. 

Ancillary benefits, such as increasing outdoor recreation sites, preserving property values, and enhancing quality-of-life issues by aiding against the traffic congestion caused by scatter-shot development are also possible. The programs also aid communities in attracting matching state, federal, and private funding for such acquisitions. 

Florida communities have continued to look at this tool as a measure to combat the increasingly difficult dynamic of developer influence over local land use decisions in the post-Citizens United landscape.

"We hope that any communities in Florida that are considering launching or maintaining their own land conservation programs will be encouraged to move forward by this year's election results," said Haley Busch, Outreach Director for the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida in a statement released after such measures went five for five across the state last Tuesday. "The results of this year's election show that public support for land conservation in Florida is strong and bipartisan."

Once a funding source is in place, however, it is up to local governments to approve purchases. Manatee County has the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee, which serves as an advisory committee to the BOCC, making recommendations on environmental land acquisition and management issues, including recreational planning. However, the county has been reluctant to use the funding source for land acquisitions and some members of the committee—including former Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac—have been critical of the county's lax approach.

Carol Felts, a local activist who serves as "at-large citizen representative" on ELMAC, has repeatedly reminded fellow committee members that the public seemed primarily interested in slowing rampant rural development when passing the referendum. Felts recently complained that during her time on the committee, she hasn't seen a meaningful effort to preserve a single piece of land from development.

Most recently, Manatee County Commissioners approved a plan in which $500,000 from the fund could be used to reimburse the Gulf Shellfish Institute for expenses related to a plan to plant clams in Sarasota Bay, ostensibly to reduce nitrogen and aid in seagrass regrowth, although the ability of such clam beds to have a significant impact on either is questionable.

Reader Comments
Carol Felts
NOV 18, 2022  •  ELMAC meetings are held once a month, and are open to the public. There is also information on line that explains the criteria and the areas under consideration for purchase, as well as the process for submitting suggestions for the program. A key factor is the willingness of the land owner to participate in the conservation effort, and the funding structure that utilizes many other resources in addition to our tax dollars for the purchase. Unfortunately, few areas, such as those abutting our state park where the public has observed and identified endangered species and wildlife habitats, and how increased density in housing developments will effect our water supply as well as the water flow in the area, continue to be approved for rezoning instead of a “smarter growth” design that provides a transitional buffer of agricultural land or utilizing our tax dollars as the public intended to manage urban sprawl into these already compromised and fragile areas, have landowners and developers with no motivation to do so. “ Citizens Advisory Committees” have little “teeth” in the process, and although made up of citizens appointed by the BOCC, and work with county staff, are not an integral part of our county’s policies and procedures. I’d like to see that changed so we can make better use of our resources and those committees of citizens that want to work with our local government and Mr. Neal and Mr. Beruff to plan communities that respect the land, local cultures and lifestyles that reflect the diversity and quality of life for all that makes Manatee great, and keep it that way for the future.
Christine Wright
NOV 16, 2022  •  Is there a legal way to hold BOCC accountable? Not familiar with the referendum's conditions but aren't there benchmarks that need to be met? Or at least a list of potential sites? What site(s) would a citizen activist like Carol Felts designate?
NOV 16, 2022  •  Sadly, the passage of this in Manatee County has only served to show how our BOCC could care less about the environment, water quality, wildlife, urban sprawl and quality of life. All that matters to them is the quality of their own bank accounts. The land conservation referendum has accomplished nothing.
Beth weir
NOV 16, 2022  •  I believe Manatee county commissioners interpret this as ‘Go developers Go’! They just keep cheering them on.
Arlene Clarke
NOV 16, 2022  •  Please, please use this money for land conservation...listen to your constituents!
NOV 16, 2022  •  Tell them Carol, our commissions are so inept and care only about themselves and their pockets. Again so embarrassing as they ruin beautiful Manatee County.