Conservation Collier moves forward with land buying program

Karl Schneider
Naples Daily News

County commissioners voted 3-2 to move forward with Conservation Collier’s list of recommended land purchases, the first since voters overwhelmingly agreed to extend a 10-year tax for the program.

Commissioners Andy Solis and Penny Taylor voted against moving the priority list forward Tuesday, both arguing that new information concerning the potential presence of pollution on one of the sites is concerning.

“This is irresponsible,” Taylor said. “We’ve already heard from staff there is pollution on the property. Conservation Collier is not in the business of removing pollution from a landfill.”

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Barron Collier Partnership LLLP is offering two sites on Sanitation and Bethune roads in Immokalee to Conservation Collier. The 400 acres contain a 16-acre landfill closed in 2012, and an environmental audit will be required, according to a staff report.

The vote allows Conservation Collier to begin paying for property appraisals for each potential acquisition and also gives the program a longer list of properties to consider buying.

The board debated adding a potential land purchase into a higher priority, but in the end voted to move forward with all properties listed in the first two tiers of the three tiers suggested by staff.

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Meredith Budd, of Florida Wildlife Federation, prepares to speak during a press conference for conservation Collier, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, at Freedom Park in Naples.

Commissioners also voted 4-1 to allow Conservation Collier to use its full revenue from the tax to buy land, with Solis dissenting.

Typically, 25% of that revenue is moved into a fund meant for future management of acquired lands. Now, the program can first buy the lands and use what is left over to fund the management portion, making up for any deficits in later years.

More than 75% of voters approved renewing the tax in 2020. The tax brings the program about $26 million each year.

Commissioner Burt Saunders said keeping money out of the management fund during the acquisition phase gives staff more flexibility.

Solis countered by saying the management funds should be paid up front each year as arguments for more money in acquisitions will always happen.

Property owners sent in 47 applications to the program for this cycle, said Conservation Collier Director Summer Araque. Of those, 42 properties moved forward.

The properties are then prioritized according to environmental value and other factors, and commissioners voted to allow staff and the program to begin negotiating with landowners in the top two tiers.

Properties the county has agreed to begin appraising include about 18 acres from five owners near the Dr. Robert Gore III Preserve near Golden Gate Estates, an expansion of Pepper Ranch Preserve in Immokalee, parcels within Horse Pen Strand and parcels on Marco Island.

Commissioners debated moving one Marco Island parcel listed on the second tier to the first tier for acquisition, but the vote to move forward with both tiers included that parcel.

Marco Island councilmember Rich Blonna told commissioners now was the right time to buy the property known as Agua Colina because permits for new homes have been pouring in the past few years.

Brad Cornell of Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida as well as Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation also urged commissioners to buy the Aqua Colina lands before it is too late.

Once Conservation Collier has paid for and gone through the appraisals for each property, the program staff will come back to the board for final approval. It's during that meeting that commissioners can decide whether or not to move forward with specific land acquisitions.

Karl Schneider is a Naples Daily News reporter. You can reach him at kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk