Fifty years ago, Florida launched an unprecedented land acquisition program that earned the state acclaim for the wise investment in conservation and recreation. The public, the Legislature and both Republican and Democratic governors enthusiastically supported the series of programs that brought almost 3 million acres into state control.
But under Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature, Tallahassee eviscerated the state's well-designed growth management laws and gutted the funding for Florida Forever and regional water management districts, both with land acquisition programs that conserve acreage worthy of preservation.
From 1990 until recently, the highly esteemed Florida Forever and its predecessor program thrived on an annual infusion of $300 million, collected primarily from documentary stamp taxes paid on all real estate transactions. This year, though, Florida Forever received a paltry $20 million in general revenue. To boost that meager amount, the state authorized the sale of $50 million in so-called "surplus" land. The 5,300 acres targeted statewide for disposal include 19.4 acres at Lake Manatee State Park and 13.1 acres at Terra Ceia Preserve State Park, the latter in several parcels at the southern approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is currently evaluating the land sales and plans to host public meetings in the fall to gather comments. These surplus lands must have value on the open market as development sites, else there would be no point in listing them. Cities and counties would have priority over developers on land purchases, but why saddle local taxpayers with the expense when the state should preserve what it already owns?
Voters will have to wrestle control of land acquisition and conservation away from politicians to put Florida back on the road to preserving land that will safeguard water, wildlife and vegetation. That opportunity exists today.
A coalition of thousands of volunteers and 300 conservation and civic organizations from across the state united to place the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment on the November 2014 ballot. The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing the ballot language and is expected to rule in mid-September.
Then this grassroots movement must deliver 683,149 verified voter signatures on petitions before the statutory deadline of Feb. 1, 2014, though organizers have set a more ambitious goal of Nov. 30. To date, 150,000 signatures have been collected. The campaign website -- floridawaterlandlegacy.org -- summarizes the amendment:
"Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years."
Floridians have proven to be good stewards of the environment, passing a constitutional amendment in 1998 with 72 percent of the vote -- surpassing the current benchmark of 60 percent approval. That amendment boosted the state's ability to sell bonds for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands and created high hurdles for the disposal of those lands, with the intention that conservation lands remain in state hands.
Once a national leader in land conservation, Florida lost its way. Clean water and thriving ecosystems are vital to the state's quality of life and economic prosperity. Future generations will benefit from today's sound investments in public land.
Manatee County is blessed with an abundance of nature preserves and parks thanks to the foresight and determination of community leaders. Voters can leave a similar legacy statewide by signing petitions and approving the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment.