Collier commissioners vote to shut down land buying through Conservation Collier

— Collier County suspended new purchases Tuesday for its popular Conservation Collier land preservation program.

County commissioners voted unanimously to stop buying land to make sure it has enough money to manage land it already has bought.

Conservation Collier has spent $104 million to buy more than 4,000 acres in almost 20 project locations around the county.

“I think it’s a real good time to focus on making these properties available to the people of Collier County,” Conservation Collier coordinator Alex Sulecki said.

Voters approved the tax that pays for Conservation Collier in 2002 and then voted again in 2006 to extend the tax levy until 2013.

Conservation groups are laying the groundwork for a possible referendum in 2012 on another levy to keep the Conservation Collier program funded.

Falling interest rates and falling property assessments have combined to leave a shortfall in the program’s land management fund that the county is bridging by using the last of its land acquisition money.

County budgeters figured the program would need to have $31 million by 2020 to pay to manage the county’s existing preserves, including building planned public access improvements.

A Conservation Collier advisory board had recommended that the county continue to buy land in two multi-parcel projects in Golden Gate Estates.

County commissioners, though, decided to stop all land buys but directed Conservation Collier to present any particularly good offers to commissioners for potential purchase.

“As long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Commissioner Donna Fiala.

Despite having running out of land acquisition money, county commissioners also voted to accept a new annual priority list for acquisitions that could be triggered should financial conditions change.

Topping that list is land along the Gordon River for a planned greenway and more than 1,000 acres south of the Pepper Ranch in Immokalee.

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