Once again, the future of the Naples Zoo is in the hands of voters.
In November, voters will be asked whether they’re willing to tax themselves to pay for 22 acres of vacant land that will allow the landmark attraction to grow in size by nearly 50 percent.
On Tuesday, Collier County commissioners voted 4-1 to put the question about the zoo expansion on the ballot. Commissioner Tom Henning was the only one to say no.
“I don’t think it’s time to be asking the voters for any increase of taxes, no matter what it is,” the commissioner said before the vote. “People are making choices on whether to put groceries on the table or gas in their car.”
Other commissioners agreed that times are tough, with so many local residents out of work and struggling to pay their bills. But they said voters should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to pay for land that will give them a bigger zoo.
“I would like to see it go to the zoo, rather than to development,” said Commissioner Donna Fiala, referring to the land.
She made the motion to put the referendum on the ballot.
Commissioner Chairman Fred Coyle supported Fiala, but said putting the question on the ballot is “a big risk,” with other important issues going on the ballot this November.
“The tendency is going to be for people to say, ‘No. I’m not voting on any of these things,” Coyle said.
“They made the correction decision to leave it to the voters,” said David Tetzlaff, zoo director.
Commissioners voted on the zoo referendum after hearing the results of a recent survey, which showed that a majority of Collier County voters are willing to tax themselves to expand the zoo.
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation group that supports the expansion, hired Public Opinion Strategies to survey 300 voters in the county by phone. In the survey, 55 percent of the voters said if the election was held today they would vote yes to support a $30 million bond that would be paid off with a property tax increase.
The land is actually expected to cost less than $30 million, but that number was used as a “worst-case scenario” in the poll question, Tetzlaff said.
“You have to be realistic,” he said. “It’s not going to be that much.”
The next step is to get a private appraisal to determine the real purchase price.
“We will know the appraisal price in a week or two,” Tetzlaff said. “This land acquisition will be a lot more affordable, whatever the price.”
In 2004, voters agreed to tax themselves $40 million to buy the 43 acres under the zoo. At the time, the attraction faced the threat of redevelopment. Land prices were much higher back then.
The property involved in the first referendum – which was supported by 73 percent of voters – was paid off early.
The land the zoo is eyeing for an expansion was once slated for a senior housing project, which fell victim to a bad economy. The land is north and east of the zoo and would increase the size of the zoo to about 65 acres.
With more land, the attraction could add to its animal collection and give its animals more room to roam.
Commissioners have not yet decided on the final language of the ballot question. They’re likely to do that at their next board meeting. Henning said the wording shouldn’t be approved until the market value of the land is known and can be included. He said it should be heard and approved at an advertised public hearing and other commissioners agreed.
“I didn’t want the seller to think we would want to pay $30 million,” Fiala said. “We want to pay the appraised value.”
The tax increase would not exceed .1 mill and would be collected for up to five years. Estimates show it would increase property taxes by $11.25 for every $100,000 of assessed value.
At the meeting, Tetzlaff tried to answer questions that had been raised by critics about the timing of the land purchase and the need to expand now.
“It’s a buyer’s market,” Tetzlaff said. “Land will never be more affordable.”
He described the zoo as a “melting pot” of people. In the parking lot, you’ll find Jaguars and junk cars.
Some questioned why the zoo – a nonprofit – doesn’t raise money on its own to buy the land.
“Zoos are simply not in what we call the dirt business,” Tetzlaff said
He said zoos raise money to build new exhibits and to add new experiences for guests.
He pointed out that the zoo has run “in the black” for more than 40 years, relying on ticket sales and memberships.
“We are not asking for operating (money), we are only asking to look at a rare opportunity to expand.”