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Tarpon Springs commissioners show interest in starting a land preservation fund

TARPON SPRINGS — Recent land sales and rejection of a pricey property purchase put City Commissioner Jeff Larsen into planning mode.

Known as an environmentalist, Larsen recently pitched the idea of creating a land preservation fund to the City Commission. The proposal: Through an annual budget allocation or with proceeds from property sales, the city could set aside money for future purchases of land for conservation or recreation.

"I think we've got an opportunity here to do something very good for the city, to do the right thing for the environment, and I think we're doing it in a very proactive way," Larsen told the other commissioners.

A draft of the ordinance was discussed at a previous City Commission meeting. Officials largely supported the concept — "a worthy cause," Commissioner Townsend Tarapani called it — but some balked at carving money from the city's general operating fund to put toward the land preservation fund.

"Obviously, we just went through the budget and things are tight," said Commissioner Susan Slattery.

The draft suggested the city put $10,000 yearly into the fund, plus half of the profits from any city property sales. But officials said the contributions could be more flexible: For example, if the city sold a property, it could put a chunk of the proceeds in the land preservation fund to cover the year's $10,000 commitment.

"I know that right now is not our best time as far as dollars are concerned," said Mayor David Archie. "But we definitely want to continue to make sure that the fund is built up over a period of time."

The land preservation fund could also grow through sales of donated properties.

Still, it could take years, Larsen said, to build up the fund. Much of it depends on how many properties — if any — the city is able to sell.

The drafted ordinance draws from a similar procedure in Collier County, home to wildlife refuges and parts of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. It targets environmentally sensitive lands, but Tarpon commissioners are interested in broadening their ordinance to include recreational properties.

"Perhaps," Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos said during the discussion, "we can get a boat ramp someday, who knows?"

In 2011, the City Commission explored the 20-acre former Linger Longer mobile home park as a possible site for a boat ramp on the Anclote River. But commissioners twice decided against moving forward.

With an initial price tag of $4 million, buying the land would have consumed the city's funds for capital projects, officials said.

That outcome also sparked the idea of a land preservation fund, Larsen said, so the city could have accessible funds if similar opportunities arise.

Potential land purchases of more than $250,000 would still have to be approved by city voters in a referendum.

Though nothing has been scheduled yet, the commission may consider a revised ordinance soon. Larsen said he hopes to return to the issue before the 2012-2013 budget is approved this fall.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Tarpon Springs commissioners show interest in starting a land preservation fund 08/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 4, 2012 1:17pm]

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