In a district-wide open house last Thursday night, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) solicited input from the public about possible lands the district should acquire for protection, management, and restoration.
Only a handful of citizens attended the meeting and voiced concerns about local and regional land acquisition. SWFWMD’s Eric Sutton points out how public funds are used to purchase land.
“Through documentary stamp taxes, like every time a property changes hands, there’s a bit of that that goes toward the Florida Forever Program. Now Florida Forever collects all those monies, and that gets split up several ways. It goes to the Water Management District, it goes to DEP so they can buy things like state parks, some goes to other programs like Florida Communities Trust.”
SWFWMD used to receive 26 million dollars per year from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Forever Program. But according to their website, it had recently dropped to 22.5 million.
Sutton says that last year the Florida Forever program has not provided funding. “Where do we apply those monies? We apply them to areas that you see here projected on maps that are eligible based on criteria in the Florida Forever Program. They are somewhat different than you might find in a local program. They speak to the water resources of natural habitat and wildlife. So we take that criteria and combine it with the districts mission, which is natural systems protecting regionally important systems and once they’re eligible we can begin acquiring them.”
Thursday’s meeting was the first of its kind, and according to Sutton SWFWMD will seek community input into the process of regional public land protection.
“This also marks the first time the district has gone through this public participation. The last time we did this was in 1997, so periodically it’s important to update your maps.”
Sutton detailed how SWFWMD updates its map for properties that are eligible for land acquisition in Hillsborough County and surrounding regions. “Let’s say sometime ago we had something identified and it became a subdivision (so obviously its no longer eligible) so we went through that exercise, we utilized new information. Scientifically GIS, that’s geographic information systems, that’s largely computer-based and scientifically- based. We also formed a steering committee that’s composed of various different experts. We also went out regionally, just like tonight we’re doing with folks, and again this is our last public workshop, in this region where we’re taking information. Anything you might know, anything you have, we want to hear about it.”
Funding and opportunities for land acquisition have changed drastically over the last decade, according to Sutton. “Given the real estate market 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, 26 million went a long way. So we were able to accomplish a lot in that time, and just basically seize opportunities; it was the hey day of acquisition. Now it’s not the same, you have limited opportunities, ownerships that have flipped. People are invested, large land owners may have had it for three generations, and they don’t want to sell in a down market, you have limited funding, maybe no funding, and you’ve got an increasing population that sees these as opportunities, from everything from active recreation, to stay off of it. The whole profession of land acquisition and management has turned in the past 10 years.”