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Voters must invest in environmental efforts

Published Aug. 31, 2005

In Pasco's vast field of unmet public needs, environmental preservation is overlooked easily.

Understandably so.

Educational needs are well documented. Buying sensitive land is likely way down the priority list for working parents whose soon-to-be high school freshmen will sit home unattended for three hours next school year because crowding has pushed back the start of their school day.

Other parents hauling younger kids to makeshift sports fields probably have their own ideas on needs. Ditto for motorists navigating congested roads or dodging potholes, for homeowners facing insurance coverage trouble because of the distance to the nearest fire station, and for neighborhoods staring at drainage troubles.

One political poll last summer revealed voters considered protecting the environment as the eighth most important issue facing Pasco County.

That's eight out of nine. The environment finished in Devil Ray territory _ ahead of "other," but behind "unsure."

Yet respondents in that same poll rated protecting Pasco's water supply as the top priority for county commissioners.

Confused? Don't be. The dichotomy is explainable. The environment becomes a top issue when homeowners can't irrigate their lawns more than once a week. But if it's not affecting them personally, voters want the county to tackle other quality-of-life issues.

That is one of the challenges facing eLAMP, the Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program. The citizens group lobbying for preservation in Pasco County knows that education is key to the success of their effort.

You're worried about water? Make sure sensitive land in the recharge area isn't damaged.

Concerned about your own pocketbook? The program can help reduce flood insurance rates, the formula for which takes into consideration the amount of permanently preserved land in the 100-year flood plain.

Too ambitious for a local government? No. The county won't be doing this exclusively. It will stretch its resources by partnering with state agencies to acquire land.

Think the county can't afford the loss of additional property from the tax rolls? A fallacy. Preserving land boosts the value of neighboring acres because conservation areas are valuable selling points on the home-buying market. Developers are finding people would just as soon abut green space as an 18-hole golf course.

"People get conservation. They like it," said Sue Mullins, government relations manager for the Tallahassee-based Nature Conservancy. "You don't stop development. You direct it."

(Besides, only 15 percent of the county, or less than 75,000 acres, currently is controlled by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which erroneously reported this week that it held 38 percent of the county. It was a mathematical error, not an overzealous boast.)

Mullins was one of the presenters at an eLAMP seminar this week that likely is the start of an 18-month effort to win voter approval for the land-buying program. Twenty-seven counties in Florida have a tax for conservation including Pasco's neighbors in Hillsborough and Hernando counties.

One of the presumed dilemmas is political competition. Schools need money. The county wants additional dollars for capital spending. A 1-cent increase in the sales tax could be on the same ballot as the eLAMP proposal, which now calls for a small property tax increase because such dollars also can be used to manage the acquired land. State law prohibits local-option sales tax dollars from being used for anything besides capital spending.

Avoid being part of a laundry list of government needs, Mullins urged, because the public will perceive it as a blank check for government spending.

Yet, with appropriate education, all can be successful. She pointed to Flagler County as the example where voters in September approved two separate half-cent increases in the sales tax for school construction and other needs and then returned in November to authorize a new property tax for land conservation.

Similarly progressive thinking would be welcome in Pasco.