TAMPA — More than 43,000 pristine acres in Hillsborough County will never get paved over thanks to a land-buying program overwhelming approved by voters nearly 20 years ago.
But the sun is preparing to set on the popular Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program. And county commissioners are trying to figure out what to do about it.
Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean took flak recently when she suggested it was not the right time to be asking voters if they want to continue the program, given the down economy and demands from property owners to cut taxes.
Commissioners voted Wednesday to let a group of land preservation advocates raise private money and conduct a poll to gauge voter support for the program later this year.
In the meantime, they asked an advisory panel to meet with founders of the program to see if it should be altered.
The timing is rough, acknowledged Commissioner Mark Sharpe. But he said ELAPP has proved to be a success, and the county should take steps to see if voters want it continued.
"We have a program that works," Sharpe said.
Voters have twice approved by a greater than 70 percent to create ELAPP in 1987 and continue it in 1990. Since then, the county has spent $186.3-million, 40 percent of which came from the state or other sources, to preserve thousands of acres. The county portion comes from property taxes.
Without action, however, ELAPP is set to expire in July 2011. A citizens advisory panel has recommended seeking voter approval this year to extend it, leaving time to ask again in 2010 if the question fails.
But Bean said she is concerned that the idea would be rejected by voters, with residents clamoring for property tax relief. She has suggested waiting until 2010 to pose a ballot question.
She has said that much of the prime land that was available has been acquired. And the tax crunch leaves little room to take care of acreage already amassed.
Supporters of the program say there are another 40,000 acres identified, much of which would expand or link current holdings.
"There's a misconception that there are not a lot of available lands left out there," said Jan Smith, a longtime supporter of the program and member of its advisory panel.
Smith worries, though, about asking voters to continue the program this year, fearing there is not enough time to mount a successful campaign.
Bean said she shares that concern. Mainly, she wanted to hear the commission's opinion, she said.
"I totally support the ELAPP program," she told commissioners. "We do want a continuation of that program."
The board's vote Wednesday blesses plans by a newly formed private group, the Land Conservation Roundtable, to commission a $15,000 poll with private donations. The group will solicit the views of commissioners on wording and said it will make the results public.
Commissioners will decide what to do next after seeing the results and discussing it with the advisory panel.
Bill Varian can be reached
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