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20/20 funds are not there for the taking

May 15, 2014
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Lee County's decision to hijack tax money voters earmarked for land preservation came home to roost this week.

Cape Coral City Council now wants to renege on a deal made with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the county last year, saying the county should bear the cost of the jointly agreed to scrub jay mitigation plan because the Cape isn't getting its "fair share" of Conservation 20/20 tax dollars.

Since the county saw fit to pluck the estimated $26 million in revenue voters specifically approved for the purchase of land deemed environmentally sensitive and reallocate it to the county's general fund for operations, we can see why the city might eye some $800,000 of that ill-gotten gain.

At least spending 20/20 money to create habitat for an endangered species falls closer to the voters' original intention back in 1996 when they voluntarily agreed to tax themselves .5 mills - 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property valuation - to buy "pristine" properties and maintain them in their natural state for future generations.

However, both the city's premise that pre-platted Cape Coral is somehow owed a "fair share" of land preservation money and the county's tax grab are equally flawed - and equally wrong.

Let us say it one more time: This program, approved countywide, is narrow in scope and is intended ONLY for the purchase, preservation, maintenance and improvement of the one natural resource over which the county still has some control - environmentally sensitive paracels that remain in a natural condition. That's wetlands and marshes, hammocks and flatwoods, prairie and scrub.

Conservation 20/20 is a wonderful success story and a rare return on taxes-for-benefit promises that all too often fall into the rathole of burgeoning costs allocated to things like bloated administrative hierarchies, spiraling personnel and consultant budgets, studies and "vision plans."

Since its inception the Conservation 20/20 initiative has resulted in the acquisition of nearly 120 properties -24,040 acres among 43 preserves - countywide. That includes multiple preserve areas in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva, Fort Myers Beach, Boca Grande and outside Lehigh Acres.

Two prime examples of the program's successful implementation here in native land dearth Cape Coral are the Yucca Pens Preserve and the Yellow Fever Creek Preserve.

The Yucca Pens Preserve is a five-parcel, 231-acre site on the east side of Burnt Store Road in the north Cape purchased for $1.65 million in 1999. The Yellow Fever Creek Preserve, a two-parcel, 240-acre site off Del Prado Boulevard, also in the north Cape, was purchased for $3.32 million in 2001.

A couple of things.

For the city, expecting a "fair share" of 20/20 dollars - defined as getting back the amount Cape taxpayers put in - makes as much sense as expecting a "fair share" of beach renourishment money. That isn't going to happen because we don't have beaches. Or, in the case of Conservation 20/20, much in the way of "natural habitat." Developed parcels like the old golf course simply don't qualify.

Conservation 20/20 is a countywide program and Cape taxpayers benefit in much the same way we benefit from the use of tax dollars for beaches along the county's coastlines: We are able to enjoy a shared, regional resource.

As to Cape Coral City Council now trying to re-write the payment portion of the scrub jay mitigation agreement, perhaps our new board does not quite understand the benefits the Cape received from the plan the city itself proposed. In exchange for paying for the creation of scrub jay habitat on 20/20 land in south county the city gets to, well, become kind of a scrub jay free zone in Lee County.

Specifically, in addition to being able to develop some 215 acres in the area of Kismet Parkway and Nelson Boulevard purchased for the city's planned "festival park," Cape Coral gets mitigation credit city wide.

That means if the protected species is found nesting anywhere else in the Cape, neither the city nor any private property owner will have to go back through the costly and cumbersome mitigation process all over again - essentially paying to find land somewhere else that will not only remain undeveloped but will be habitat friendly to the birds that have specific nesting and food requirements.

The city thought is was getting a bargain two years ago when it agreed to contribute $788,000 between 2014-2018 to establish and maintain habitat for the threatened species in a regional mitigation area on 20/20 Conservation land in Alva.

It did. Did we mention that it would have cost the city substantially more to mitigate as required by the feds on the festival park land here in the Cape where two scrub jay families - mating pairs and their immature and adult but not-yet-mated offspring - were found? Without the additional citywide mitigation benefit thrown in?

To Cape Coral City Council we say honor the agreement, stop the "fair share" nonsense and move forward with that whole "less adversarial relationship with the county" promise touted just a few months ago.

To the Lee County Board of County Commissioners we say you reap what you sow. When you made 20/20 tax dollars "revenue" to spend as you wish, you opened the door to the our-fair-share argument. And you slammed the door in the face of voters and taxpayers who trusted you to spend the money in the manner they were promised.

Don't repeat that mistake this budget year.

- Breeze editorial



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