Referendum would put land changes to vote


Published: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 12:12 a.m.

If a referendum on Tuesday's ballot passes, Alachua County conservation, recreation or cultural lands could be sold only if voters approve the sale.

Proponents of the measure believe it will give more protection to land bought under the Alachua County Forever program from future sale or a different use.

"It's necessary in part because we were told by many folks that they did not believe the forever part of Alachua County Forever and because they rightly understood that it is in the power of the County Commission to dispose of land or convert its use if you have a majority vote," said Robert Hutchinson of Alachua Conservation Trust. "This put the forever back into Alachua County Forever."

Alachua County Forever purchases environmentally valuable land. It is funded by a quarter-mill property tax that has been bonded to raise money up front. About 13,715 acres have been acquired. Land purchased must be kept at least until bond covenants are satisfied. Currently the property could be sold or converted to a different use on a vote of the commission when the bond is satisfied.

If the referendum passes, the county's charter would be amended to require that a public vote be held on the sale or conversion of land.

The referendum would apply to other county park or historical property as well.

A registry of "protected public places" would be created. Any sale or conversion to a different use of property on the list would require voter approval.

Alachua County Forever Manager Ramesh Buch said he is not aware of any instances of someone wanting to buy county conservation or park property. But a sale or a different land use could be worthwhile in some circumstances, Buch said.

He added that the charter amendment will ensure that public land remains public and in its intended use, as long as the public wants it.

"A good idea will fly. If we can demonstrate to the public that the area will not be harmed and it won't violate the purposes of the program, I think the idea will fly," Buch said. "If the intent is these should be forever, unless we think it is a good idea, we would rather not have the property converted to some other use or disposed of without the public saying, 'Wait a second, you taxed us, you bought this property, we should know what you are going to do with this land.' "

Some residents have wanted to lease Alachua County Forever property for activities such as cattle grazing. Commissioners so far have not allowed grazing or other uses of the land.

Hutchinson said that if the referendum passes Tuesday, a similar measure will be put on the spring ballot for Gainesville City Commission races.

Several years ago, the City Commission rejected a proposal to swap 91 acres around Northside Park for land elsewhere so Wal-Mart could build a super center there.

Also on Tuesday's ballot is a two-year, half-cent sales tax referendum. The tax would raise about $40 million. One half would go to build recreation facilities and half would go the purchase of more conservation land under Alachua County Forever.

Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or at swirkoc@gvillesun.com

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