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Flagler Ranks Low in Latest Florida Forever Priorities, But Money Is Elusive Anyway

| May 18, 2011

Flagler County Blueway borders the Intracoastal Waterway in most of the county. (© FlaglerLive)

The Florida Cabinet approved a new priority list Tuesday of over 100 properties eligible for preservation under the popular Florida Forever program.

Flagler County barely registered on the list. Its Flagler County Blueway, the 4,200-acre expanse of sensitive lands along the Intracoastal Waterway, came in 13th, and with a “medium” priority tanking, within the 30 “partnership and regional incentive” projects.  Flagler had no projects on the 32-project list of critical natural lands, and none in the high-priority categories overall.

It may not have made much of a difference even if Flagler County had ranked higher, and with more projects: Because of budget cuts approved by the Legislature, the vast majority of the nearly 2 million acres ready for conservation in the state will remain on the waiting list for the third year in a row.

Lawmakers didn’t put any money into the popular land preservation program, but gave the state the authority to spend a little over $300 million on it if money becomes available through the sale of surplus state lands. Environmentalists say, however, that the most that could likely be raised from such land sales would be $50 million or so.

“People are still nervous,” said Charles Pattison, the executive director of growth management advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Florida. “On paper there is no money there. They haven’t sold anything yet.”

This comes after the program got $15 million last year in the budget, a significant drop from the $300 million annually the program received prior to 2008.

Environmentalists say the money from surplus lands won’t fund very many land purchases.

For instance, to finish purchasing all 60,000 acres of just one high-priority conservation project called the Lake Wales Ridge in Polk County, which happens to be at the very top of the Florida Forever priority list this year, would cost $16 million. There are 113 other projects slated for conservation and environmentalists say some of these projects won’t be available for conservation indefinitely.

In 1988, and in two subsequent referendums, Flagler County voters approved a property tax to build a fund with which to buy environmentally sensitive lands. The Environmentally Sensitive Lands program has been quite successful, particularly when the county has leveraged local dollars to bring down state dollars from the Florida Forever fund. The combination has helped enrich the county’s protected lands. Acquisitions include the 1,500-acre Princess Place Preserve, the 7-acre Bings Landing property in the Hammock, the 56-acre Linear Park in Palm Coast, and the 90-acre River to Sea Preserve in Marineland.

The local fund is mostly spent, and recent purchases have been questionable. making leveraging–if it were available–even less likely.  (GoToby has a complete chart of the various land buys, with local and state breakdowns.)

Flagler County got two more projects on the list, but in conjunction with other counties: the Volusia Conservation Corridor, which ranked 10th, as a medium priority, on the same partnership and regional incentives projects list, and the broader Northeast Florida Blueway, which encompasses 13,317 acres, through St. Johns and Duval counties. That projects ranks fifth, as a low to medium priority, in the shorter “Climate Change Lands Projects” of Florida Forever’s priorities.

Lawmakers have defended cuts to programs like Florida Forever as part of the difficult choices necessary when deciding what programs should be prioritized over others. When compared to basic services such as education and health care, land preservation can be viewed as an unnecessary extravagance during lean times.

Environmentalists, however, defend the program as vital to protecting land from development and preserving natural resources that are just as much of an economic draw as Disney World.

Janet Bowman, a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy, said the program creates and protects recreational opportunities, shields springs and watersheds from harm, provides habitats for animals such as panthers and black bears, and ensures that certain endangered animal and plant species are protected.

“The program has been extremely popular with the public,” Bowman said.

Florida Forever was established 10 years ago as a land preservation program, the successor to another program, Preservation 2000, which started in 1990. The state buys land to be protected from development. Since 2001, more than 667,000 acres have been preserved at a cost of $2.8 billion. Typically the program has been funded at $300 million annually until 2008, when funding began to drop off.

To cope with the backlog in property slated for acquisition through Florida Forever, the program has developed a priority list. Some projects have been on the list for Florida Forever or predecessor Preservation 2000, for nearly 20 years. Others projects were added this year.

“There are landowners who have property on the Florida Forever priority list that are very interested in selling their lands to the state, however, the lack of funding has impacted the ability to negotiate favorable contracts,” the Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement. “Only the highest priorities continue to be considered for acquisition at this time.”

But even the projects considered “high priority” may only see a small portion of their lands converted next year.

Florida Forever has already purchased 30,000 acres of the high-priority Lake Wales Ridge, scrub land between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee. But another 30,000 remains. The land is considered high-priority because saving it from development preserves endangered species, including a population of scrub mint that may be an entirely new species, materials from the Department of Environmental Protection note.

By purchasing it, the intent is to use the land for state parks, state forests, hiking trails and camping.

Environmentalists say they are concerned that if Florida Forever continues to be under-funded, the state will miss opportunities to buy land that will not still be available for purchase when the economy turns around.

Bowman gave the example of a federal grant program to protect land near military bases from development. But it requires a state or local match. “There are strategic opportunities that present themselves,” Bowman said. “I think it’s important to have some funding in order to be taken advantage of them even in a tough budget year.”

–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive

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