Tax backers point to acres of natural reasons, including Lake Dan

KEYSTONE

The level of Lake Dan, like other lakes, fluctuates with the weather.

But the future of the lake is set.

It will see no development.

No houses.

No fertilizer runoff from people's yards.

And no bulldozers plowing over the habitats of gopher tortoises, sandhill cranes or burrowing owls.

That's because the 32-acre lake, plus more than 1,000 acres around it, were purchased this spring by Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.

The county paid $17.75-million to a trust set up for the descendants of pioneering landowner H. George Wilde and two members of the Wilde family with their own stakes in the property. The money came from the ELAPP property tax, which Hillsborough County voters will be asked to extend in a referendum on Nov. 4.

Supporters point to Lake Dan as one of the program's success stories.

"Once we get it fenced and get the exotics removed, I think it'll be a place you want to go," supporter Jan Smith recently told the Lutz Civic Association.

In November, Hillsborough voters will be asked to approve borrowing up to $200-million for future environmental land purchases. The debt would be repaid with revenues from the tax, and it would have to be paid off within 30 years.

The tax is capped at a quarter of a mill, or 25 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value. That cap would go away if the referendum passes, but county officials expect that a quarter-mill would still be enough to repay $200-million in bonds.

This year, the tax is about 0.22 mills — or $44 for a home­owner with a homestead exemption on a house assessed at $225,000.

Next year, in a budget-cutting move, county officials propose to reduce the ELAPP tax rate to about a quarter of what it is now.

So far, no one has come forward to oppose the extension. In fact, more than 70 percent of voters agreed to create the tax in 1987 and to renew it in 1990.

Still, supporters wanted to hold the referendum this year in case anti-tax sentiment defeats the proposal. That way they could bring it back in two more years for another vote before the tax expires in 2011.

Since it was created, the preservation program has spent more than $204-million to buy shoreline, mangrove islands, pine flatwoods, marshes and other ecologically unique properties.

Of that total, $80.6-million came from the tax itself. The county borrowed another $63-million on the bond market. The rest came from grants.

"The benefit of the ELAPP program is that it provides local dollars to match with state dollars," said Kurt G. Gremley, the county's ELAPP acquisition manager.

In the case of Lake Dan, the Florida Communities Trust selected Hillsborough this month to receive $6.3-million as a partial reimbursement for the cost of buying the property.

The county still has to put together a management plan, but the Lake Dan property is expected to become a preserve with a small parking area north of Huckavalle Road, plus spots to picnic, fish, hike and maybe ride horses, said Forest Turbiville, section manager for the county's regional parks and conservation services section.

Those trails are expected to link to trails just over the Pinellas-Hillsborough county line. This month, Pinellas County agreed to buy a sister piece of property, the 871-acre Eldridge-Wilde well field, from the Wilde Trust for $17.5-million.

So far, the ELAPP tax has paid for 44,700 acres in Hillsborough, including Lake Dan. Another 40,000-plus acres meet the program's criteria.

"What a wonderful legacy to leave to our children and grandchildren," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt, co-chairwoman of the campaign behind the referendum. "I can't believe that anybody is going to stand up and say that this is not a good idea."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

>>AT A GLANCE

On the Web

• Visit www.preserve

hillsborough.org, the Web site of Preserve Hillsborough, a private, nonprofit committee formed to advocate for the passage of the ELAPP tax.

• Visit www.hillsborough

county.org/parks/

conservationservices for county info about ELAPP.

Tax backers point to acres of natural reasons, including Lake Dan 09/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 5:03pm]

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