'Forever' is facing limits


Barbara Spiess of Gainesville walks her standard poodle, Friskey, at Cofrin Nature Park. The park was bought with funds from the Alachua County Forever program.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 10:41 p.m.

The news that Florida's population of 18 million could double by 2060 is creating more urgency to conserve land — just as money to buy local greenspace is running short.

Facts

Open for the public to enjoy

  • Three Alachua County Forever tracts are currently open to the public: Austin Cary off Waldo Road, Lochloosa Flatwoods off County Road 325 and Cofrin Nature Park on NW 8th Avenue in Gainesville. Other tracts will be open in the future and activities will generally be limited to low-key recreation.

A study commissioned by the group 1000 Friends of Florida, which monitors growth-management issues, found that population increases are expected throughout North Florida.

The primary land conservation program locally — Alachua County Forever — is running out of money at a time when advocates say the need to preserve more land is growing more pressing.

A group of residents is organizing to explore the idea of renewing the property tax that funds the program.

"Recently, as this Alachua County Forever pot of money is getting down to the end, some citizens have gotten together to talk about ways we can perhaps organize ourselves around a referendum in 2008 for another pot of money," resident Lisa Molitor Gearen said. "We are in very early discussions — would this be worth doing? What would it take? What kinds of resources are there to put a campaign together?"

Alachua County Forever is run by the county with money from a voter-approved quarter-mill property tax passed in 2000. A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The referendum that created Alachua County Forever limits the tax to the collection of $29 million.

The program stretches that money through collaborative efforts with the nonprofit Alachua Conservation Trust, the water management districts and through other sources of money.

Alachua Conservation Trust buys land for preservation and often works hand in hand with other land-acquisition efforts in obtaining money for the buys.

All told, Alachua County Forever has protected about $51 million worth of land — of which about $18 million has come from the tax, said program manager Ramesh Buch

But the program has bought so much land — about 8,500 acres with strictly tax money and 11,000 total — that it is almost out of cash.

Buch said Alachua County Forever has between $9 million and $10 million in the account — about $2.5 million raised through the tax, plus a $6.5 million state grant.

The bank account may run dry soon, he added.

"We've got more than $10 million (in land) that we are currently negotiating on. So we could actually have all that money spent by the end of the year," Buch said.

Three Alachua County Forever tracts are currently open to the public: Austin Cary off Waldo Road, Lochloosa Flatwoods off County Road 325 and Cofrin Nature Park on NW 8th Avenue in Gainesville. Other tracts will be open in the future and activities will generally be limited to low-key recreation such as hiking and horseback riding.

The 1000 Friends of Florida study stirred headlines statewide for the effect a doubled population will have on the environment.

It estimates that 7 million acres of additional land will be converted from rural to urban uses in Florida, including 2.7 million acres of existing agricultural lands and 2.7 million acres of native habitat.

That is creating more urgency for land conservation.

"In the land conservation movement, each decade is viewed as, 'This is the decade when we have to get it all done.' And then another decade rolls around and we say it again," said Robert Hutchinson, project manager for Alachua Conservation Trust. "In terms of the 2060 report — the pressure of humanity — the real pressure we see is land prices. We have seen a tremendous acceleration in the value of raw land. We're seeing a leveling off right now but nobody really sees the value of Florida real estate dropping."

County Manager Randall Reid said Alachua County Forever has been successful in land buying and in its popularity with groups that often have differing perspectives — developers and property rights advocates on one hand and land preservationists on the other.

Reid added that 23 other Florida counties, recognizing the need to preserve greenspace in the face of the ever-increasing population growth, have similar programs.

"We think this kind of program is essential. You have to buy environmental land if you want to really preserve it, so the concept of Alachua County Forever is something we support, but we think it should be a citizen-led initiative," Reid said. "If you travel throughout the various interests in this county, the least objectionable argument is that if someone is willing to sell their land for environmental purposes and the government can buy it, that is the way to do it."

Hutchinson and Reid said most of the land that is purchased through Alachua County Forever has an agricultural tax exemption, so public acquisition is not taking much taxable property off the rolls.

Buch said the public has nominated 224,000 acres for purchase. Of that, 41,000 was placed on a list by the County Commission for potential acquisition, including the 11,000 that has already been bought.

Lands that are now in negotiation for purchase include tracts in the Lake Lochloosa area, Barr Hammock, Mill Creek and near the Austin Cary Memorial Forest.

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com

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