BROOKSVILLE — In a surprise move, a divided Hernando County Commission on Tuesday voted to disband the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program, first approved by voters in 1988.
The action, which abolishes a program designed to purchase and preserve the county's sensitive lands, came after Commissioner Wayne Dukes argued that the current commission does not want to buy more sensitive lands and that it is a waste of resources to have county staffers and a volunteer board continue to meet and plan purchases.
What will happen to the $6,165,000 in tax money still in the ESL coffers is unclear. While there are limitations on how the money can be used, county officials could not immediately say what would happen to the funds — money that residents voted to collect.
In 2011, during tough budget times, the county diverted the one-tenth of a mill property tax for sensitive lands to cover mosquito control expenses. A year later, in a nonbinding referendum, voters approved the tax for mosquito control, but turned down the chance to again assess the sensitive lands tax.
When approved by voters in 1988, the intent was to collect the tax for 30 years.
Diane Rowden, the lone Democrat on the County Commission, was stunned that an item listed on Tuesday's agenda as "discussion regarding environmentally sensitive lands program,'' with no backup material and no invitation to the volunteer members who compose the ESL committee, could lead to a vote to disband the program.
She urged a full discussion of the program before the commission took any action.
Rowden said commissioners should have all of the facts in front of them, including the value of the sensitive lands for ecotourism, especially now that Hernando County has branded itself as the Adventure Coast.
ESL committee member Linda Prescott also urged the commission to give the group a chance to present its annual report and share what the committee has been working on before a decision was made.
County environmental planner Dawn Velsor talked about the committee's work to put together an acquisition plan to connect wildlife corridors through land owned by the Florida Forest Service. She noted that most of the sensitive lands controlled under the program provide recreational opportunities.
But Dukes did not relent.
"The folks did a good job for the county because the county wanted that done,'' he said, noting that times had changed and moving forward with ESL activities "is counterproductive.''
"The time of cooperation with the county and the environmentally sensitive lands committee has come to an end,'' Dukes said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins pointed out that Hernando County already has between 33 percent and 40 percent of its property in public hands, and that puts too much burden on the remaining property owners to pay the bill for services, he said.
Prescott argued that she was one of the taxpayers paying the bills and that she was willing to do so in order to live in a place where nature is preserved. That is what brought her to the community, she said.
Rowden accused other commissioners of "pulling the wool over people's eyes'' by springing the topic without the public's prior knowledge.
"There are only five of us sitting up here. We represent a whole lot of people who would have liked to have known that this was going to be discussed,'' she said. "I'm appalled.''
When the board turned to deputy county attorney Jon Jouben for his opinion on disbanding the program, he replied, "I think the board is within its powers to do that. The question is whether it wants to.''
The commission voted 3-2 to disband the program, with Rowden and Commissioner Jeff Holcomb voting no. Holcomb said later that he would have been willing to wait to hear residents' comments, but would have then voted with fellow Republicans to make the vote 4-1.
"That is so wrong,'' Rowden said after the vote.
She said the board covered up its plan and lied to constituents. She reminded commissioners that nearly 72 percent of Hernando voters last November voted "yes" on Amendment 1 to the state Constitution, which was aimed at protecting natural Florida.
"I'm so shaken by this,'' she said, "I'm speechless.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.