20/20 vision: Purchase of environmental parcels in Lee open for discussion

The future of Edison Farms is still uncertain after Lee County Commissioners vetted through the purchase of 24 parcels of land Tuesday at the Board of Commissioners meeting.

The 3,922-acre site near Estero and 23 other parcels of land brought about a lengthy discussion between the community and commissioners, prompting the board to move the consent item to the administrative agenda to discuss at length the cost and appraisal process of the sites.

With a current estimated cost of more than $295 million, the 24 parcels will go through an appraisal process commissioned by the board, which could take up to several weeks. The parcels were nominated for sale by the property's owners to Lee County's Conservation 20/20 Program, which aims to acquire properties of environmental significance, restore the land to its natural condition and manage the land in a way that benefits the public and protects its natural resources.

"When you submit a parcel, you submit an asking price," Commissioner Tammy Hall said. "The (Conservation) 20/20 team doesn't look at price as a criteria, but rather, they're required to look at the environmental value."

Although the board did not want to single out any parcel in particular, the support for Edison Farm's purchase was made quite obvious by community members who voiced their opinion during public comments.

"This is the largest conservation opportunity in Southwest Florida," said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "This property feeds three tributaries to Estero Bay and has been identified in studies as a priority one restoration area."

The current asking price for the farm located east of Interstate 75 in Estero is $170 million, a number the the board is hoping will be negotiable after appraisers finish in the upcoming weeks. By appraising all 24 properties, Chairman Frank Mann believes it will increase competition and help flush out a more favorable price.

"For us to be able to purchase and save the land is a laudable goal," Mann said.

Previously a candidate for the Red Sox stadium and a proposed site to extend County Road 951 to connect Collier and Lee counties, Edison Farms is now the top-rated property out of the 24 parcels in terms of its environmental value.

"This is an opportunity to leave things as good if not better for our children" Hecker said. "(Edison Farms) is very vulnerable to mining and other land use and intensification, which would destroy the value it has to this community."

Throughout the purchasing process, Mann intends to ensure the public is kept informed from start to finish. By teaming up with the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that works to protect land and conservation efforts, the board hopes to come to an agreement in land price by having the nonprofit secure a contract with property owners. The county will then purchase the land from TPL.

"However we choose to work with them, it will be aired in this public board," Hall said. "The public will have an opportunity to review that agreement ... I think we're in a position to do well by the county in this next go-around of parcels."

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