State land purchases considered in five counties

By Bruce Ritchie

A state panel today recommended adding more than 24,000 acres in five counties to the state list of proposed conservation purchases.

The proposals come at a time when the state is struggling with a nearly $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in this year’s budget. The 2008-09 budget includes $300 million for purchases under the Florida Forever land-buying program.

The projects would include 14,609 acres near Eglin Air Force Base in Walton County, where conservationist M.C. Davis is seeking to restore wildlife habitat at Seven Runs Creek. His proposal has support from base officials, who want to maintain low housing densities on the ground beneath where its planes fly, along with The Nature Conservancy and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

“The Florida Wildlife Federation cannot support a project more strongly than this one,” Preston Robertson, the group’s general counsel, said during a public hearing Thursday.

Seven Runs Creek is one of three proposed “conservation easements” in which the state would purchase only development rights. The other two are McDaniels’ Ranch, with 2,707 acres in Hendry County, and Tiger Cattle Co. Ranch Reserve, with 2,229 acres in Okechobee County.

The two projects that would be outright land purchases are Bear Hammock, with 4,548 acres in Marion County, and Harbor Branch Phase II, with 61 acres in St. Lucie County. The state Acquisition and Restoration Council approved adding the five purchase areas to the Florida Forever land-buying list.

Senators on Wednesday were told by analysts that the state next year is expected to receive only 29 percent of the $4 billion received annually from documentary stamp taxes during the height of the real estate boom. That revenue pays for the bonds issued to pay for Florida Forever land purchases.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and chairman of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, said he would object to the Florida Forever land-buying being cut because of the budget deficit.

“We all understand it is a difficult year, and everything has to be considered,” Constantine said. “But that is a commitment we made in statute to the people of the state of Florida.”

Copyright Bruce Ritchie