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Hernando voters to decide whether to continue the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program

The upcoming referendum to extend the environmentally sensitive lands assessment is the longest of long shots.

It's a tax, and nobody has to be told about the popularity of taxes in Hernando County. It mostly pays to preserve natural land and people generally think we've preserved plenty — especially now that development has stopped its march in our direction.

Still, I can make a case for it.

It's a tiny tax, for one thing, costing the owner of an average-value home with homestead exemption less than $5 a year.

It's so small, in fact, you might not even be aware you've been paying it for years. Voters approved this assessment, up to 0.1 mill, in 1988. In November, the question on the ballot won't be whether to extend the right to levy this tax forever, just until 2020. Without going into every wrinkle of how the tax's revenue has been diverted (or hijacked, some say), that means it will only last as long as originally intended, 30 years.

What have we gotten, and what might we get, for our annual contribution of a few days' worth of accumulated pocket change?

The best person to answer that is Gene Kelly, the former conservation planner for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy and a stalwart member of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee, the group that recommends how the money from this tax is spent.

Kelly and I drove out to Bayport Park, Hernando's main gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. A trip there is almost like a trip to the middle of the last decade.

There was a lot of wasteful government spending then, we hear. But thanks to funding such as, in this case, the $1.4 million in ESL money used to upgrade an old, bare-bones county park, there was also a lot of investment in first-class facilities:

A boardwalk with views of open water and diving pelicans, picnic pavilions that look sturdy enough to withstand hurricanes, a spacious but not obtrusive parking lot with a porous surface that prevents runoff from flowing into the gulf, and three boat ramps as wide as interstate on-ramps.

Obviously, this park has hosted countless sunset viewings, barbecues and, because this was an active port for decades and the scene of some dramatic skirmishes during the Civil War, a good number of historical tours. It has been the launching point for kayak trips to untouched barrier islands, as well as for tarpon and grouper fishing expeditions in the gulf.

But, for now, let's not talk about how it has made the county a better place to live, the access it offers us "to one of the most beautiful coastlines on the Nature Coast," as Kelly puts it.

Let's talk about money.

Bayport's location near the southern edge of the state's prime scalloping waters, along with those spacious, plentiful parking places and boat ramps, has made it a favorite staging grounds for scallopers from Tampa and Orlando, said Steve Geiger, a research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In July, at the start of scallop season, "this place was an absolute zoo," said Charlie Gardner, an FWC biologist whom Kelly and I ran into at Bayport. "Normally, you have parking for about 75 trailers, and there was like 140-something here."

Some of these folks came from out of state, meaning they spent money at motels as well as at convenience stores and restaurants.

Add in the steady stream of scallopers visiting during the rest of the season, which ends Sept. 24, consider the anglers and boaters who use these ramps year-round, factor in FWC studies, such as one three years ago in Taylor County that showed the several boat ramps there brought in $7 million annually, and it's not unreasonable to think the improvements at Bayport have already paid for themselves.

"I don't think it's a stretch by any means," Geiger said.

The improvements also show how ESL money has allowed the county to leverage funding from other sources.

Agencies such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District are more willing to spend money on land — or were willing, back when such acquisitions were a priority — if the county has the means to upgrade, maintain or expand the properties, said Kelly, formerly a biologist with the district.

At Bayport, Swiftmud paid for the land to expand the park, allowing the county to spend its ESL money for the improvements.

Elsewhere on the coast, Swiftmud and the county previously combined to buy two tracts of land, a total of 748 acres at a cost to the ESL fund of $448,000.

At Peck Sink, the county used $2.3 million in ESL money to buy the 110-acre site southwest of Brooksville, a purchase that brought in grants that helped build the ponds that purify runoff from 10,000 acres before it flows into the aquifer.

Money derived from environmentally sensitive lands bought or helped buy other major properties, including Cypress Lakes, 331 acres of pine forest and wetlands in Ridge Manor, and the 139-acre Fickett Hammock property northwest of Brooksville.

Both are prime examples of these types of habitat. ESL money has paid for a county worker to keep them that way.

As for possible plans, the one I always liked best was buying parcels to connect the various tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest. A trail on preserved land across the northern fringe of the county could help make Hernando an outdoor recreation mecca and bring at least as many visitors as boat ramps.

Land prices are in the cellar. There's about $4.5 million in the ESL fund. If we agree to keep paying into it, maybe we could secure the development rights to that land (without necessarily buying it outright) before the building gears up again.

I can't think of a better way to spend my pocket change.

Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter at @ddewitttimes.

Hernando voters to decide whether to continue the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program 09/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 8, 2012 12:34pm]
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