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SAVING FLORIDA'S BEAUTY

Florida's purchases of preservation land could slow because of tighter state spending. That means private property owners would have to pick up the slack by granting conservation easements to land they own that is of natural or scenic significance. And Florida voters will be asked to give that process a boost by supporting an intriguing constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Here's how it would work: The state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission has placed an amendment on the ballot that, if approved by more than 60 percent of voters, would give a complete property tax exemption to land restricted by a conservation easement. Such easements are legally binding and require that the land be kept in its natural state, unaltered by development or destruction of its natural resources. While landowners are often paid for such easements, they don't receive any property tax savings now, even though the land loses much of its value.

A number of other states have encouraged preservation in this way by giving landowners a credit on their state income taxes. Florida, of course, has no income tax so the conservation community came up with the property tax break.

Little if any formal opposition to the plan has surfaced so far. Floridians consider preservation a major element of growth management and have been willing to pay for it in the past. Rural counties might see a threat to their property tax base from the amendment, but John Wayne Smith of the Florida Association of Counties said he believes the amendment's "intent is good." In some ways it would relieve both state and local governments of the cost and oversight of preservation land, because private trusts would take on that responsibility.

Another potential drawback is that, should the amendment pass, the Legislature would have to implement it by working out the details in state law. That is a process potentially fraught with pitfalls. Yet existing state law already spells out the structure and enforcement of conservation easements. Conservation groups such as the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy, which support the amendment, would have to keep a watchful eye.

Voters should be careful about writing more property tax exemptions into the Constitution. And they will need to learn more about this proposal before making up their minds. The devil would be in the details, but this idea could have merit as an inventive way to encourage preservation of the state's shrinking natural beauty.

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