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In this 2007 video, Bob Gore urged the Conservation Collier land preservation board to buy his wildlife sanctuary. Collier County

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A year from now, Collier County voters may be asked whether they support bringing back a special tax to pay for a longstanding land preservation program. 

But preparations for the potential referendum are already underway. Advocates for Conservation Collier are gearing up to test the waters for public support and mounting a political campaign in favor of the program. 

An advisory board for the county program has approved two proposed versions of ballot language that are scheduled to come before county commissioners in January. 

A group of environmentalists, meanwhile, plans to poll the public ahead of the ballot language discussions, and advocates for Conservation Collier will form a political action committee to boost public support.

"There’s a pressing need to do this in Collier County ... ," said Ellin Goetz, a Naples landscape architect who will help run the PAC, "Yes Conservation Collier." 

"The pace of development has not abated."

Read: Collier to turn Gore sanctuary into permanent preserve

Goetz, who has been involved in successful campaigns supporting the program during past referendums, said Conservation Collier helps protect water resources, preserve land and afford opportunities for passive recreation.

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Almost 60% of voters backed the program when it was first created in 2002. And in 2006, more than 80% of voters favored continuing Conservation Collier until 2013. At a recent meeting, a Conservation Collier agenda item drew no speakers in opposition to the program. 

The PAC plans to use direct mail, email and public speaking engagements to build support ahead of the referendum. 

"It’s a win-win for everybody," Goetz said of the program. 

Read: 'They see themselves in her': Immokalee Community School principal finds her voice

Per the draft ballot language, voters would be asked if they want to reestablish funding for Conservation Collier by levying a quarter-mill property tax for 10 years. That means homeowners would pay 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $75 a year for a $300,000 home.

The money raised would allow the program to continue to acquire, preserve and manage environmentally sensitive lands and provide public access to those lands wherever possible. 

Since its inception in 2003, the program has acquired 20 properties totaling 4,300 acres for about $106 million. The tax sunsetted in 2013 and with no new money coming in acquisitions have slowed, frustrating some supporters of the program.

Read: Collier County land preservation program moving too slowly for some conservationists

Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, said there is "clearly a desire" for people in Collier to sell their conservation land.

"What we don’t have is the money," he said. "So let’s go back to the voters and ask them what they think, because we think there’s every reason to restart this program for acquisition."

Read: Massive Everglades restoration project in Picayune Strand more than two thirds complete

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The two proposed ballot versions are identical aside from the fact that one includes an option for the county to borrow money using bonds. When voters in 2002 first authorized the program, the ballot question referred to the county issuing up to $75 million in bonds to be paid back plus interest with the property tax increase.

Environmental groups are split on whether bonding should be included this time around.

Cornell said bonds were included when the program was first created to help jump-start it. Now that there is a track record and there are a number of parcels already purchased under the program, Cornell said he would probably side more with a "pay-as-you-go" approach.

"Unless somebody convinced me that we needed the bonds for some particular parcels that we knew were going to come up," Cornell said, adding that planned polling ahead of time will help show where voters stand on the question.

To Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, however, bonding is "a really important tool."

"Land is expensive and so being able to bond allows the county to leverage more dollars upfront to purchase properties," she said.

Audubon and the Florida Wildlife Federation are working with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to pursue polling to see what the public supports.

"We’re really trying to make sure that the referendum is successful," said Gladys Delgadillo, environmental policy specialist for the Conservancy. 

Delgadillo said the group hopes to have its research done in time to make recommendations to commissioners when they take up the ballot language in January.

Commissioners earlier this month approved a so-called Future Acquisition Strategies document, which provides an inventory of potential acquisition lands to guide the board in finalizing the ballot language. 

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Although commissioners discussed an easement program, proposed by Commissioner Bill McDaniel, the board ultimately decided not to introduce any new tweaks ahead of the planned referendum.

"I’m fairly convinced that this might have value, but at this point, this is not something that we should be including when we’re looking at an election in barely a year," Commissioner Penny Taylor said during the discussion. "And it just seems to me we’re going to muddy up the water, and that’s my concern."

The program's initial acquisition phase was closed in 2011 and available funds were put in a maintenance trust fund as the program moved into a preserve management phase, including opening the preserves for public access and managing and hosting visitors, according to the county.

Currently, the trust fund has about $30 million.

In  2017, commissioners approved the use of management funds to buy more land. In 2018 and 2019, three projects totaling 200 acres were purchased for close to $1.6 million.

More: Commissioners revive Conservation Collier

And: After opposition, Collier backs down on tax increase to conserve land

If the referendum passes, the idea would be to also use money from the tax to replenish the maintenance fund, said Summer Araque, Conservation Collier coordinator.

"So that we keep a certain balance in there," she said.

Still, using the maintenance funds to purchase new properties has been opposed by Commissioner Andy Solis.

Earlier this month, commissioners voted 4-1 to move forward with buying 37 acres for $1.58 million. Solis cast the dissenting vote.

"Using the maintenance money to purchase property is a bad idea," he said. "And I’m not going to support it. It’s just a bad idea."

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

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