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East County Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 6 months ago

Manatee Commissioners discuss how to implement environmental tax

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Manatee County to implement the environmental tax referendum approved in 2020.
by: Scott Lockwood Staff Writer

In November, 2020, 71% of Manatee County voters favored a Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum that created a new tax to help the county purchase environmentally sensitive lands.

During a special meeting Oct, 27, Manatee County Commissioners studied how the tax, which is expected to raise $6.7 million annually from a 0.15 millage, will be used. They examined the process on how lands will be selected and eventually purchased.

Debra Woithe, the Manatee County Environmental Lands program manager, said prospective lands must meet four types of criteria, including habitat, rarity, importance to water resources and connectivity. 

“We're looking at what's existing, and also what's proposed,” Woithe said. “We have several other organizations that have done their own modeling and have their own priorities for what's important to conserve.”

Water resources drew the most discussion among the commissioners, namely because of stormwater runoff and other pollutants causing issues in Sarasota Bay and other area waters. Lands purchased with the funds raised from the tax would go a long way toward easing those issues.

Jiggs Landing Preserve, located near Lakewood Ranch on Linger Lodge Road, is another environmentally sensitive land thats owned and protected by Manatee County.

“I think we have a critical issue with our bays,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. “I have been in office since our bays were the cleanest they've been since the 1940s, and we can't say that now. That's all happened within like five or six years. It's because of the growth everywhere and the runoff. And that's why 71% of all voters that voted in the last election support this because they see the problem and they're willing to help pay for it.”

According to the proposed conservation acquisition process, individuals or organizations can nominate a particular property for review. Once an initial assessment is completed, the property owner will be contacted to determine if the owner is a willing seller or whether the property will be rejected if it does not meet natural resource criteria. 

A sign greets visitors to the Johnson Preserve at the west end of Clubhouse Drive in Lakewood Ranch.

After an on-site meeting and evaluation, the property would be presented to the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Advisory Committee, also known as ELMAC. ELMAC can either recommend the property to the Board of County Commissioners for approval, negotiations and purchase, or reject the property.

Commissioners were concerned property owners might raise the price on their land once they find out the county is interested. 

‘I respect ELMAC and I don't like to micromanage,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. “I like to know what's going on, but I want their expert opinion before it comes to us for a final decision. We have to think of a process where this doesn't go with the property owner saying forget it, 'I want $800,000 an acre' once they find out we’re interested in it.”

ELMAC was established by the Manatee County Commission in 1993 to advise the Commission on matters related to environmental land acquisition and management, and recreational planning and programming for acquired lands. 

That 15-member board is set to take a bit of a different shape, with five seats being modified for district-specific seats. Commissioner James Satcher, who indicated he did not vote for the tax, said he wanted to see one or more commissioners be involved in the preliminary selection process. He nominated himself to be a commission liaison to the ELMAC board, and was unanimously approved for the spot.

“I think that this board needs to have a look at it and see where you're going or where you want to go before ELMAC really gets involved and spends a lot of time on it,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said of any prospective land purchase. “I understand the people that are on ELMAC, and know how important it is. But at the same time, this board needs to be aware of anything and everything because we are the stewards of the taxpayer money.”

ELMAC member Ingrid McClellan, who represents Keep Manatee Beautiful, welcomed the addition of Satcher to the committee.

Flowery bushes line the trail inside Johnson Preserve in Lakewood Ranch.

“I can think of three different commissioners that have been with us,” said McLellan, an area resident since 1991. “We were a lot more effective when we had a commissioner with us.”

Manatee County Parks Director Charlie Hunsicker said that commissioners approved $5.7 million in the Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget for the purpose of purchasing environmentally sensitive lands. 

“We could acquire one now if we had an important property, which we do not right now,” Hunsicker said. “We were not told to wait until October of 2022 to start acquisitions. We were given the opportunity now through the bond market to make those purchases by the administration and the board.”

Lakewood Ranch resident Louis Kosiba worked on the referendum campaign and told commissioners that voters in Manatee County are intelligent and savvy when it comes to environmental issues. He was frustrated by the fact that there hasn’t been any lands or water protected in the year since the vote and pleaded with commissioners to support the recommendations from Manatee County staff on how to enact the referendum.

“I know they deliberately voted to protect our drinking water, rivers and beaches,” Kosiba said of the voters. “They enthusiastically voted to raise their taxes in order to preserve environmentally sensitive areas affecting their quality of life, for themselves and for future generations. It is time to act. Further delay only demonstrates disrespect to the 10s of 1000s of voters who gave this commission direction on how to intelligently and their money to protect their environment and protect their parks.”

Hunsicker said the input from the commission from Wednesday’s meeting will be used to fine-tune the referendum and prepare nomination forms for future ELMAC members. It will be presented to the Manatee County Commission for implementation at a later date.

 

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