landscape-nature-sunset-cloudsFor those unfamiliar with the program and its history, the Lee County (the “County”) Conservation 20/20 program functions as the County’s environmental acquisition and management program that was established to protect our local drinking water, provide nature-based recreational opportunities, protect areas from flooding and provide wildlife habitat.

The Conservation 20/20 program was originally created on July 31, 1996, when the Board of County Commission (the “BOCC”) adopted Ordinance No. 96-12, which created a “Land Committee” to assist in implementing the “Lee County Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Program.” Thereafter, the 20/20 program was substantially amended by Ordinance No’s 96-12, 05-17, and 13-09. Ordinance No. 15-08 was the most recent amendment, which establishes a 15 member appointed citizen’s advisory committee called the “Conservation Lands Acquisition and Stewardship Committee” (CLASAC). CLASAC is tasked with the responsibility of advising the BOCC regarding the acquisition, restoration, improvement and management of conservation lands to meet its enumerated objectives and duties.

It is important to emphasize that, following the adoption of Ordinance No. 15-08, any changes to the County’s 20/20 program must be approved by a “super-majority” vote of the entire BOCC.

Which Lands Qualify for Consideration under Conservation 20/20?

Ordinance No. 15-08 explains that generally, “the lands considered for purchase should have critical or sensitive conservation value, be large enough in size to be effectively managed or be a unique/rare habitat type, contribute positively to surface water management, water quality, water recharge and supply, flood control, wildlife habitat, appropriate passive public recreation, or open space.”

In addition, Conservation 20/20 is described as a “willing buyer/seller program,” whereby lands are not taken by threat of condemnation, but instead are appraised and prioritized based on a number of criteria before being purchased for fee simple and/or other property interests, such as easements and purchase of development rights. Lands purchased are also subject to receipt of off-site mitigation credits and must be consistent with those identified under the Comprehensive Plan (“Lee Plan”) as being appropriate for conservation and protection of natural resource efforts and public recreation.

How is the Conservation 20/20 Program Funded?

The Acquisition Fund and Management Operations of the Conservation 20/20 program are funded from the County’s General Fund and millage.

According to recent reports from the County, the Acquisition Fund has a current balance of $89 million, while an additional $4 to $6 million is anticipated to be taken out of the General Fund over the next five (5) years to cover maintenance, operating and restoration costs for the program. Pursuant to Ordinance No. 15-08, once the program’s Acquisition Fund drops below $40 million, the balance must be replenished by the County.

What’s the Legal Scoop?

The upcoming November 8th ballot measure for the Conservation 20/20 program is being presented to the public as a non-binding referendum.

The important distinction between a binding and a non-binding referendum is that a binding referendum requires the result to be acted upon by the BOCC, whereas a non-binding referendum is merely used by the BOCC to solicit the public’s opinion on the issue. Moreover, since Ordinance No. 15-08 specifies that no changes to the program can occur absent a supermajority vote of approval by the BOCC, the Conservation 20/20 program will remain in effect regardless of the result of the referendum, unless four out of five BOCC members later vote to amend or repeal the program itself.

For any questions about the County’s upcoming ballot measure on the Conservation 20/20 program, or for general questions relating to Environmental or Land Use law, please contact me at Henderson Franklin’s Fort Myers office by email at Austin.Turner@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1178.