110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Volusia County Council decries plan to remove lands from protection
By Pat Andrews
posted Jun 18, 2012 - 7:24:49am
The seven-member Volusia County Council has bonded over the years — sometimes united in support and sometimes in opposition — but the bond may never have been so strong as the current protest of a state study of whether lands purchased for conservation should remain protected.
At its June 14 meeting, the County Council was fierce in its objection to the St. Johns River Water Management District’s plan to “surplus” land it deems should no longer be shielded from development.
The Water Management District is in the middle of a yearlong assessment of lands set aside for water conservation, to see which parcels can be removed from the list.
In an April 25, 2011, memorandum, the DEP told the state’s five water management districts that, because of limited funds, the state “must prioritize its limited resources.” The assessment began in December.
Robert Christianson, director of Operations and Land Resources at the St. Johns River Water Management District, briefed the County Council on the assessment June 14.
If scientific studies show a parcel or a portion of it is no longer needed for water-resource protection, he said, the land can go to other uses, including agriculture and silviculture, recreation, and so forth.
Christianson noted that, over the past 35 years, the St. Johns River Water Management District has acquired more than 700,000 acres in its 18-county jurisdiction.
“Do we still need it?” Christianson asked.
Of that public land, he said, 97,262 acres — or about 14 percent — are in Volusia County. The county is a joint owner, with the Water Management District, of 18,533 of those protected acres.
Do we still need it? The County Council’s answer was, yes. With bells on.
County Council Member Carl Persis said he is suspicious.
“Every time I see these things, I think about money — someone’s looking to make some money off of this somewhere,” he said. “It just smells funny.”
Persis questioned whether Gov. Scott has friends who own land and see an opportunity to make money, “so now, a big inventory determination is needed.”
The county will need to keep an eye on “where this is really going,” Persis said.
An angry County Council Member Pat Northey voiced her opposition to the state plan, especially to a sample map that showed Long Leaf Preserve east of DeLand and Deep Creek Preserve in Farmton may not be considered vital to resource protection.
Northey supported the Farmton Local Plan — the plan to allow development on 47,000 acres in Volusia County between Deltona and Edgewater— with the stipulation that land around Deep Creek on that property be preserved for conservation. The Farmton Plan got the County Council’s final OK in April 2011.
Ed. note: Deep Creek Preserve is the name, suggested by Northey and approved by the County Council, for what used to be known as the Leffler property. The Deep Creek area of Farmton is to be put into conservation, as well.
“We had a strategic plan,” Northey said. “Now you’re telling me, ‘Not so much.’”
She added that Volusia County’s conservation corridor in the middle of the county is one of the “seven jewels of the region, and we’re talking about tearing it apart.”
Along with several residents who questioned the assessment and its wisdom, the discussion brought two retired county department managers back to County Council Chambers to object.
Steve Kintner, former director of the county’s Department of Environmental Management, and former Land Acquisition and Management Director Doug Weaver, who acquired most of Volusia’s conservation properties, joined with former County Council Member and land-use attorney Clay Henderson to speak against the idea of removing lands from conservation.
Henderson noted that in 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved taxing themselves to create Volusia Forever, a land-buying program.
Volusia Forever’s stated goal, Henderson said, is to “finance the acquisition and improvement of environmentally sensitive, water resource protection, and outdoor recreation lands, and to manage these lands as conservation stewards in perpetuity.”
Many properties purchased by Volusia Forever are adjacent to property purchased by the Water Management District, in a cooperative effort to preserve water-recharge areas and environmentally sensitive wetlands and wildlife areas.
Council Member Andy Kelly said these lands were to be preserved in perpetuity.
“What does that mean? For me, forever and ever,” Kelly said.
The ability to assure the lands would never be developed is the reason for Volusia Forever and the statewide program, Florida Forever, Kelly said.
County Manager Jim Dinneen said it appears the study is not taking into account the purpose for which the land was bought.
“It devalues everything you bought, from a strategic point,” he told council members.
Council Member Josh Wagner said the county will be ready to put up a legal fight, if necessary.
The Water Management District has set up four public meetings in the district, as part of the assessment, but none of the meetings are in Volusia County, despite its large share of conservation land.
County Chair Frank Bruno asked for a meeting in Volusia County. Christianson said he will be happy to schedule one.
Bruno said he will also enlist the support of the Congress of Regional Leaders, of which he is chair.
Northey suggested drafting a resolution expressing the County Council’s concerns and sending it to the Water Management District.
The county legal staff drafted the resolution the same day, “affirming the county’s commitment to preserving natural and water resources, acquiring and maintaining public conservation land.”
The resolution notes each conservation project was scientifically assessed by various agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Forever Advisory Council, and “were determined to be important environmental resources.”
The resolution also requests that a public meeting on the assessment project be scheduled in Volusia County.
Read about the Water Management District’s plan online at www.floridaswater.com/landassessment. Read the Department of Environmental Protection’s letter to water management districts at www.dep.state.fl.us/secretary/watman.
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