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Now's the time for Hernando County to buy more land to preserve

County Commissioner David Russell thinks we've set aside enough green space for now.

Over the years, Hernando's Environmentally Sensitive Lands fund has paid for all or part of Cypress Lake Preserve, Fickett Hammock Preserve and the expansion of Bayport Park. They were worth it at the time, Russell said, "but now I think priorities have changed.''

So he wants the county to use the fund — which collects about $630,000 a year — for maintaining county parks, referring to the kind with ball fields rather than hiking trails.

Voters created this fund in a 1988 referendum, one that clearly said the money would buy unspoiled property; the County Commission later agreed to devote a small chunk to maintain these acquisitions. You'd think another referendum would be required before it could be spent on anything else.

No, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben told commissioners Tuesday. All they need to do is pass an ordinance. The referendum called for the county to issue bonds, he said. It never did, so now the money can be treated like any other tax revenue.

None of the commissioners questioned this logic — setting Aug. 10 to hear the proposed ordinance — and why would they?

They don't want to raise taxes or even pass a tiny rate increase that, with falling property values, would actually result in a slight tax reduction for most of us. But without more money, commissioners may have to cut basic functions such as cleaning toilets and cutting grass in a park system that cost us millions to build.

So, they've been forced to scrounge. And if tapping into the environmental lands fund is not quite like breaking into our kids' piggy banks — the $5 million already collected will stay there — it is like grabbing away quarters they plan to save for the future.

Is Commissioner Russell right? Have times changed?

Politically, yes. For many years, everybody seemed to like nature preservation.

Big land owners told the public: If you want to take away our development rights, either buy our property or buy those rights. Voters, alarmed by all the forest and wetlands being devoured by subdivisions, were willing to do so. Both parties supported the Florida Forever land-buying program when it was created in 2000.

Now you hear Realtors and developers make the (unconvincing) argument that conservation areas take up too much of the county's land — about one-third of it — and not enough is left to build on. Residents don't seem so worried about the environment because the devastated building industry isn't doing much devouring these days.

Which is why this is the perfect time for the county to start buying land.

The land-buying fund was always too small. Take out a few expenses, including the cost of maintaining preserved land, and only about $400,000 will be raised next year for buying pristine areas (or for keeping up parks if the commission chooses to spend it that way). There was never enough money for worthwhile projects, such as setting aside a corridor of green between tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest. Now that prices have fallen, maybe there is.

Developers are still asking for zoning changes, so they must think construction will resume before long. That means we still need to protect natural land. And now's our chance.

Now's the time for Hernando County to buy more land to preserve 07/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 8:28pm]
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