Greg Chelius: Preserving our special green places


Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 5:43 p.m.

What would Alachua County be without places like Mill Creek Nature Preserve, the Hogtown Creek Greenway, Blues Creek Ravine, Fox Pond, Depot Stormwater Park and Tuscawilla Lake?

We would have fewer places to hike and recreate, fewer places for wildlife to thrive and water resources in greater jeopardy - overall, a community with a lot less "green."

Protection of these special places has been made possible by people and organizations in this community and by Florida Communities Trust (FCT), one of the jewels of the Florida Forever land acquisition program.

For 18 years, the people of Florida have invested in the permanent protection of land through FCT and Florida Forever - for habitat protection, local parks and trails, beach and coastal access, watershed protection and much more. Today, however, our ability to make these types of investments is in question.

Consider this:

FCT, which makes grants to cities and counties for local parks, this year will fund fewer than a quarter of the projects proposed. There is simply too little money.

A minimum of $4.36 billion is necessary for local governments to purchase the more than 120,000 acres needed to meet the level of recreational and outdoors services identified in their comprehensive plans, according to Florida Parks in the 21st Century 2008, a report published by TPL and others.

Virtually all the Florida Forever funds dedicated to protecting natural and habitat areas are committed to long-standing projects through 2010, when the program will end.

Florida Forever, our state's landmark land protection program, is simply losing the race with development. While population growth has boomed in recent years and land prices have skyrocketed, Florida Forever has remained the same for 18 years - $300 million annually.

All is not lost, however. In fact, today's real estate market offers wonderful opportunities for conservation. After more than doubling between 2000 and 2006, the price of housing in Florida actually fell five percent in the past year. The cost of open land also has dropped. As a result, properties long sought for parks, water supply protection, wildlife and hunting are suddenly available for purchase at more reasonable prices.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who last year proposed an additional $100 million for Florida Forever, has observed: "If there are other innovative ways that we can make these purchases while the land's a little less expensive, in the long term it's good for Florida."

Absolutely. Even given the state's current operating budget deficit, strategic land buying today can protect key open land that surely will be lost to development when prices rise. We may never get this kind of opportunity again.

So, how can the governor and the Legislature seize the current market opportunity and bolster Florida Forever for the future? They can reauthorize Florida Forever during the upcoming legislative session and do the following:

Use existing Florida Forever bond authority.

For two years under Gov. Bush, the state used cash on hand for Florida Forever - not the approved bonding. As a result, an extra $600 million in bonds exists today. What better way to pay for an appreciating, long-term capital investment like land?

Devote more Documentary Stamp Tax dollars to land buying.

The tax on real estate transactions and development pays for Florida Forever bonds. But, while Doc Stamp revenue boomed until the current housing downturn, Florida Forever never benefited.

Invest in each of Florida Forever's diverse land buying activities.

The great programs that create new city and county parks, protect rivers and springs, and build new greenways and trails should all benefit from new dollars that seek to capitalize on today's market slump.

Last month, The Sun's editorial page editor, Ron Cunningham wrote in these pages, "The bulldozers turn over 165,000 acres of Florida land a year (about 453 acres a day), so we're not exactly in danger of running out of places to put condos. This is no time to abandon our collective commitment to preserving Florida's past for the sake of Florida's future."

We couldn't agree more! The Trust for Public Land - and our partners like Alachua County, the City of Gainesville, Alachua Conservation Trust and the members of the Florida Forever Coalition - will continue to forcefully make the case to decision-makers for local parks and for the renewal of Florida Forever!

Greg Chelius is Florida director for The Trust For Public Land, a private nonprofit group. www.tpl.org/florida)

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