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Five More Florida Counties Pass Land Conservation Referenda

BRADENTON – Voters in Alachua, Brevard,Indian River, Nassau, and Polkcounties 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 Floridain 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.


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