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Editorials

Tampa Tribune editorial: Short-sighted land deal

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:03 PM

A short-sighted measure in the Florida Legislature would essentially put an end to the state and local land conservation programs, making it impossible to preserve the natural treasures that are the foundation of the state's appeal.

Credit Sen. Alan Hays of Umatilla and Rep. Charlie Stone of Ocala for this scheme.

Their legislation would prevent the state or any local government from buying land for conservation unless an equal amount of land was sold by the public authority.

This is sheer idiocy.

Buying conservation land does much more than protect wildlife habitat and provide recreational opportunities for residents and tourists, though those are valuable goals. Ecotourism has become a boom for the state.

But land acquisition programs also protect aquifer recharge areas from development, buffer springs, bays and rivers from pollution, and provide an effective alternative to government controls.  Landowners with environmentally important tracts can be compensated for not developing their land, which is far superior than seeking to control the land through regulations.

Moreover, since the Legislature jettisoned Florida's Growth Management Act, land acquisition programs give local government a way to prevent sprawling growth that creates costly problems for taxpayers. Public expenses and private disasters can be averted when land in flood-prone areas is bought.

The two Republican lawmakers should talk to former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, who with lawmakers in 1990 launched Preservation 2000, the comprehensive land-buying program that continues today as Florida Forever. It has preserved more than 2.2 million acres, and Florida is far the better for it.

Martinez recognized that Florida's continued growth and prosperity depended on preserving the natural beauty that so enriches the quality of life here. A former water district board member, Martinez also knew that protecting ground- and surface water was the cheapest way to maintain drinking water supplies.

The former governor, rather than relying on government dictates, used the marketplace — the land would be bought using a portion of the proceeds from the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions. Local governments also recognized the return on investment for such targeted conservation, and many adopted their own land-buying programs, which sometimes split the costs of property with the state. Hillsborough County was among the first. Its Environmental Lands and Acquisition Program, which manages more than 61,000 acres, has been a remarkable success.

All transactions in the state and local efforts are voluntary. This is environmental protection without the heavy hand of regulators, yet Hays and Stone would put an end to all this.

The short-sightedness of the plan is breathtaking. Florida, with nearly 20 million people, is about to become the third-largest state in the nation. The state's land acquisition has not slowed growth or kept pace with environmental problems. Water shortages are chronic in many parts of the state, including in the Tampa Bay area.

Most of the state's once pristine springs suffer from pollution and dwindling flows. Poor planning has resulted in widespread sprawl and gridlock. Residents complain of a diminishing quality of life. Yet this legislation would strip state and local governments of the best tool they have to deal with such challenges.

And it is not enough for the lawmakers to ruin state policy; they would dictate local policy as well. It is typical of Tallahassee, where lawmakers who claim to be conservative embrace top-down government solutions once in Tallahassee.

It should be said there is nothing wrong with encouraging state and local governments to sell land that has no environmental value. Landowners selling tracts to government sometimes insist that outlying parcels be included in the transaction. It is appropriate to get rid of such land, and use the proceeds to buy or manage other land.

It is also appropriate for the state to look more at buying conservation rights to lands, rather than buying it outright, which ensures the land is preserved but allows it to continue to be used for ranching or other uses.

This baseless legislation, which would virtually halt land preservation, ignores the reality of Florida. It should be jettisoned.

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