Conservation Collier running out of land-buying dollars as property values decline

— Collier County’s popular land preservation program is running out of money for new land buys, according to budget projections.

Voters approved a tax increase in 2002 to start the Conservation Collier program, which has spent $103.7 million to buy more than 4,000 acres from willing sellers in 19 different spots from Marco Island to Immokalee.

Buying land is only part of the bargain though. The county also needs money in the bank to take care of the land and provide public access amenities such as boardwalks and trails even after the tax levy sunsets in 2013.

The problem is that the land management part of the program is running short on money and needs an infusion from a separate account used to buy land.

Add to that an overall downturn in property tax revenues because of the housing bust, and the Conservation Collier acquisition fund is taking a double hit.

Bottom line: The program will have about $2.6 million coming in for new acquisitions between now and 2013, according to budget projections.

Another $2 million is already in the bank to buy land to fill in the gaps in multi-parcel acquisition projects that are under way.

The bleak picture for new land buys comes just as the program could be snapping up good deals in a weakened real estate market.

Program managers say they don’t want to keep buying land without enough money to manage it.

“It’s just smart management from our standpoint,” Conservation Collier advisory board Chairman Bill Poteet said.

As required by the law that governs Conservation Collier, the program has been depositing 15 percent of its total revenues into the management fund each year.

That has proven to be not enough, as program backers had feared from the start without hard numbers to back it up.

“We’re just now getting our feet wet (on firming up management costs),” Poteet said. “Until we get a handle on it, we’re going to be conservative about it.”

Managers are estimating they will need $23.7 million in the management fund by 2020 to generate enough money from interest to keep Conservation Collier preserves in good shape.

Last year, they recommended transferring $7.4 million from the acquisition fund to the management fund. Lower interest rates, though, have prompted managers to recommend increasing the transfer by almost $3 million.

Since that recommendation in late May, the program got more bad news when the county projected that tax revenues next year would decrease by 12 percent, not the 10 percent predicted earlier.

That has prompted managers to recommend that another $1.8 million be taken out of the acquisition fund and put in a reserve account, where it might have to be tapped for management costs.

Less money to spend on new land isn’t stopping Conservation Collier from ranking its acquisition priorities for 2011.

Conservation Collier purchases have been on hold since last summer in the wake of the county’s landmark $32.6 million purchase of the Pepper Ranch in Immokalee in 2009.

So far, the county has an estimated $15 million worth of proposed acquisitions in the hopper for ranking, Conservation Collier coordinator Alex Sulecki said.

Among them are two areas owned by Barron Collier Investments Ltd. that could expand the Pepper Ranch Preserve by some 1,000 acres.

As part of a deal that cleared the way for the county’s purchase of the ranch, Barron Collier is required to offer the land for sale to Conservation Collier as a way to eliminate the company’s agricultural access easement through Pepper Ranch.

Sulecki said it’s too early to tell what the county will or won’t buy with what could be its last few millions.

“I guess it will make people more picky,” Sulecki said.

__ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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