Conservation 20/20: Lee County referendum among ballot decisions
Up off Del Prado Boulevard, roughly across from Coral Lakes, lies a trail through some of Cape Coral’s all-but-gone pine flatlands habitat.
The 2.5-mile marked pathway winds through a portion of a 340-acre site that Lee County says is home to a number of native species from the common – opossums, gray squirrels, raccoons, armadillos and skunks, to the more elusive – bobcat, and the bigger, bushier and protected fox squirrel.
Native plants also abound – from a variety of ferns and airplants to native cypress and, of course, slash pines and, in season, wildflowers. Lots of wildflowers.
The Yellow Fever Creek Preserve, like dozens of such natural sites across Lee County, is to be preserved and appropriately managed in perpetuity, thanks to a taxpayer initiative called Conservation 20/20.
Since voters approved the program via a non-binding referendum in 1996, the county has purchased nearly 25,000 acres spread among 45 preserves. Through the initiative, the county also has established land stewardship plans for each site to do things like remove invasive vegetation and restore habitats while also adding “passive park” improvements such as trails, boardwalks and places to picnic so the public can enjoy the lands their tax dollars have bought.
Now, 20 years later, Lee County voters are being asked, through another non-binding referendum, whether they would like the program to continue.
County officials, who placed the initiative on the ballot unanimously, say yes.
“First of all, it’s been a very good program for the community in total,” said Lee County Commissioner and Cape Coral resident John Manning. “It has enhanced the landscape throughout Lee County – and there’s no tax increase.”
The ordinance that enacted the program following the public vote two decades ago has been expanded to provide more benefits, he added.
“We have expanded the ordinance to include water quality issues and increase public access,” Manning said. “We also have increased the management part of the program, which is very important.”
Conservation 20/20 has also helped the local economy.
“Overall, it’s been a very successful program and, if it keeps going, it will raise property values in Lee County because we will be leaving environmentally sensitive lands to our grandchildren,” Manning said. “It’s a great program.”
The program does not use eminent domain, meaning the county does not “take” sites. Parcels purchased through the “willing seller” initiative include preserves on barrier islands like Sanibel and Pine Island; various wetlands sites; “uplands” like those in the Cape where 20/20 dollars were also used to buy the 231-acre Yucca Pens Preserve off Burnt Store Road; and “buffer properties” to protect water bodies, the Lee County website states.
The referendum has drawn little organized opposition. All of the county’s municipalities, though, are supporting the measure as are more than a dozen environmental and conservation groups countywide.
Among them are the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Audubon of Southwest Florida, the Estero Council of Community Leaders, CREW Land and Water Trust, and Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife.
“We definitely support the Amendment,” said Steve Chupack, an officer with the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife. “What this says to me, as a board member of the Friends of Wildlife, is this is one of those ideas that is strongly supported by people.”
Visitors come to Lee County, and people live here, for the reasons Conservation 20/20 exists, he said, adding environmental preservation benefits not only wildlife, but creates recreational opportunities and, ultimately, provides an economic benefit that has been proven.
“We’re a wildlife organization but we’re a quality of life organization, too,” Chupack said. “Let’s preserve and protect what we need to; not only what wildlife needs, but what human beings need, too.”
The financial impact of conservation land has been analyzed and, according to a report prepared a few years ago by Richard Weiskoff of the University of Miami, there is an economic impact that can be quantified, according to Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Policy director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.
“One of the things we learned is properties that abut preservation land both retain and improve their value,” said Wessel, a 38-year Lee Countian who was involved in the initial Conservation 20/20 initiative.
Among the findings contained in the report’s executive summary is that for each 2.3 acres of conservation land purchased, one job is created.
“We conclude that the key to job creation and measured growth of ‘nature tourism’ in Lee County lies in the acquisition and maintenance of Conservation Lands,” the economic look at Lee County and Estero Bay Basin Conservation Lands paper states. “Compared to the purchase price, the Conservation Lands have indeed been a good investment.”
The report also touches on the impact of the housing bust and the role conservation lands have played in Lee County’s recovery.
“The collapse of the housing boom and the moderate recovery since 2012 has, ironically, thrown the county back on its own nature track, which is tourism with a focus on the nature setting: uncluttered beaches, clean water and air, easy access to ‘wild’ areas, parks and museums, minimal traffic, good services and accommodations, fair prices and genuine hospitality,” the Weiskoff report states.
“A strong component of our economy is being the natural place people want to visit,” Wessel said, citing the report.
For those who wish to make their views known on the referendum, Wessel had some advice related to the structure of the ballot.
“It will be the very last item on the ballot,” she said. “People often really want to vote for a handful of offices. Make sure you check the last item on the ballot, that is the 20/20 Conservation referendum; it’s after all the constitutional amendments so it is the very last item on the ballot.”
Conservation 20/20 Non-Binding Referendum
DO YOU APPROVE OF LEE COUNTY CONTINUING TO USE GENERAL REVENUE FUNDS TO ACQUIRE, RESTORE, IMPROVE, AND MANAGE LAND FOR CONSERVATION, SURFACE WATER MANAGEMENT, WATER QUALITY, WATER RECHARGE AND SUPPLY, FLOOD CONTROL, WILDLIFE HABITAT, PASSIVE PUBLIC RECREATION, AND OPEN SPACE PURPOSES, PURSUANT TO LEE COUNTY ORDINANCE 15-08 (COMMONLY KNOWN AS THE LEE COUNTY CONSERVATION 20/20 LAND PROGRAM)?