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Tough land-preservation questions have answers

Pascowildlife.com has been educating folks on environmental land preservation for three years _ and the same questions pop up over and over. I call them _ the tough ones.

With all the services we need due to the tremendous growth we've experienced in Pasco, isn't this the wrong time for an environmental land preservation program?

An environmental land acquisition program must be funded to be successful at securing matching funds from state, district or federal sources for purchases. Some people see only the cost of a program. They see the funds needed for this program as competing against other, more pressing needs.

The irony of this viewpoint is that it overlooks the fact that land preservation relieves some of the agony of those pressing needs. Open lands do not send children to school, nor add traffic to our roads or demand pipes for water and sewer.

Environmental lands require less service dollars than developed lands. It takes thousands of dollars a year to educate a single child; it takes less than $20 an acre per year to adequately manage environmental lands.

Everyone is concerned with controlling growth. We may differ on what that means, but we all agree that something needs to be done. A program is one of the most effective, immediate and permanent mechanisms for removing land from development and directing placement of growth. A program that helps control growth and has economic as well as environmental value _ is there ever a wrong time for it? Yes. The wrong time for any environmental lands program is when it's too late and there's nothing left to save.

I've read that 25 to 33 percent of our land is already off the tax rolls. How much more can we afford to remove?

This question assumes that development brings more money into the tax rolls than it requires to service. Over 100 "cost of community services" studies nationwide dispute that. Some industrial and commercial development does pay for itself, but residential development does not. Sustainable development is a balance of all types of land use, including preservation lands.

In Pasco County, the total number of preservation acres off the tax rolls is less than 19 percent. Other lands enjoy tax-exempt status due to designated use. These include, for example, CSX railroad tracks, public schools, wastewater treatment plants, jails, landfills, government buildings and properties like Saint Leo University, Florida Power and the Zephyrhills airport.

What can environmental lands do for me?

How about increasing the value of your property? Market studies reveal that people will pay more for land close to preserved open lands. Those same studies reveal that subdivision lots near conservation areas increase and hold their value more than interior subdivision lots. Environmental lands ensure that those who like to hike, canoe, camp, bike, bird watch, fish or who simply want a quiet place to sit still have a place to do that. These same lands protect the quality and quantity of our drinking water and help retain storm water and control flooding.

They provide habitat for healthy wildlife populations, some of which allow for popular recreational opportunities like sport fishing and hunting. Forests improve the quality of the air we breathe, keep our soils from washing away and cool the temperature of the earth. All these are things that maintain and improve our quality of life.

I've heard that preservation programs buy development rights, but leave ownership of land in private hands. Why would I support a program that just makes rich people richer?

I state this question as bluntly as it has been put to me. The unfortunate assumption is that all large tract owners are rich, make no contribution to our economy and if in agriculture, stay there because it's easy. For a program, however, the focus belongs elsewhere. Quite simply, it stretches the public's dollar. It allows a program to extend protection to more acres than would be possible by buying land outright. Every program owns core lands, but extends protection through buffer lands in conservation.

Conservation easements, as these arrangements are called, are the ultimate partnership. The agreements are specific for each piece of land and can ensure that the lands truly provide a public benefit. The land remains on the tax rolls, it continues to be managed by a private owner, and only certain land uses are allowed. Once the developments rights are retired (and, yes, paid for), the condition is perpetual and protects the land from conversion to development.

There are many more benefits to an environmental lands preservation program, but a discussion of such would take more space than we have here. I leave you with these thoughts: moonlight, cicadas, a whipporwill's call, a deep breath, peace and a sense of connectedness to all creation.

_ Jennifer L. Seney is director of Pascowildlife.com.

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