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As they plan for another two decades of buying, preserving and caring for unspoiled and natural lands, Volusia County leaders are asking for the public’s help.

In the Nov. 3 election, voters gave the county permission to continue charging up to one-fifth of a mill in property taxes to keep the Volusia Forever program going for 20 more years. One-fifth of a mill is 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value.  

“It is a wonderful program,” county Growth and Resource Management Director Clay Ervin said. 

Ervin noted Volusia Forever will focus on restoration and conservation, and will partner on land purchases with federal, state and regional authorities, “to maximize our buying power.”

“This is a mandate from the people,” Council Member Barb Girtman said.

A solid 75 percent of the voters favored the Volusia Forever proposition.  

On Jan. 7, the County Council agreed to arrange listening sessions around the county and to reinstate the Volusia Forever advisory board. The advisory board, which recommended, which privately owned lands should be purchased and shielded from development, went out of business 10 years ago because the county had exhausted its purchasing ability, when it reached its bond limit of $60 million. 

“We didn’t have any more money,” Ervin said.

The final payment on that bond issue comes due Oct. 1, 2021, just in time for the start of the new term of Volusia Forever.

During its first 20 years, Volusia Forever provided funds to buy or secure conservation easements on some 38,000 acres in Volusia County. The lands were deemed endangered or likely targets for urban development and/or necessary for water recharge and aquifer protection. Some of the lands also have recreational potential. 

As it considers which types of lands to seek out now for purchase and preservation, some favor protecting agricultural tracts. Many old citrus groves, whose trees were killed or heavily damaged in the hard freezes of the 1980s, were not replanted, as growers were not willing to risk additional losses. Girtman said she would like to see the county “helping my farmers in the northwest section … make a long-term plan for their future.”

Another policy decision facing the county now is whether to adopt a pay-as-you-go approach — avoiding debt altogether — or issuing new bonded debt to be repaid over the life of the program. The county could also decide to do some of both. 

At present, the one-fifth of a mill ad valorem tax yields approximately $7 million per year. Thus, over the next 20 years, the tax collections for Volusia Forever would amount to some $140 million, and probably more if the tax base grows at a healthy rate.

The times, dates and locations of the county’s listening sessions on the future of Volusia Forever are yet to be determined. Council members agreed there will be five such public meetings, one in each council district. 

Stay tuned.

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