Preserve Conservation 20/20
April 20, 2011
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 both a 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, in 1996, proffered a proposal to the voters of Lee County - that they agree to 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; no costly "takings" through eminent domain. Ten percent is set aside for ongoing maintenance and necessary restoration.
To date, 107 properties have been acquired. They total some 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 very 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.
There are two primary 20/20 funded preserves on or near Fort Myers Beach. One is the Matanzas Pass Preserve, a two-parcel, 59.05-acre site at 303 and 307 Nature View Ct. on the Beach. The first parcel was purchased for $1.4 million in January 2006. The other is San Carlos Bay - Bunche Beach Preserve, a single-parcel, 706-acre site off of 18201 John Morris Road in Fort Myers, purchased for $6.38 million in August 2001.
At Matanzas Pass Preserve, the two parcels are combined into the existing Matanzas Pass Preserve (198 Bay Road) that was donated to Lee County by The Nature Conservancy in 1993. The total acreage is more than 57 acres and includes the only maritime oak community left on Fort Myers Beach. The Preserve offers 1.25 miles of trails that wind through the canopies of mangroves and the oak hammock and a mangrove forest that borders Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.
At San Carlos Bay - Bunche Beach Preserve, the purchase and perpetual preservation of this site has provided protection for wetland areas such as tidal swamp, an extensive tidal creek system, coastal grasslands, coastal berms that define the southern border and extremely productive seagrass beds and mudflats that provide habitat and food for both fish and a wide variety of birds.
Any bid to somehow "opt out" of the program should be nixed as should any attempt to back-door the program's demise by "bringing it back to the voters" in hope the program will go away and the county can then raise property taxes by the half mill without, to use politic-speak, "raising taxes."
If voters see no benefit from the program, if they no longer see value in paying the levy, we assure our concerned officials at both the county and city level that they will do as taxpayers are wont to do, that they will do, in fact, what they did back in 1995 and '96.
That’s petition the commission and asks that the program be put on the ballot so they can vote their mind.
Until then, leave the Conservation 20/20 program alone, it's not a potential cash cow but a program our children - and their children - will benefit from far into the future.
- Observer editorial