In a time when Florida’s population is surging and cities and suburbs are spreading into wilderness areas, the Volusia County Council is poised to partner with state agencies to shield more acreage from development.
Following the passage of the 2020 referendum to renew the Volusia Forever program for another 20 years, the County Council on April 5 approved a list of properties for purchase.
This is, in effect, the county’s action plan for expanding watersheds and wildlife habitat. As matters now stand, the county may add almost 10,000 acres to the main and central conservation corridor, as well as adding endangered tracts along or close to waterways on Volusia’s east and west sides.
“You have 15 properties that are going on the A-list,” Resource Stewardship Director Brad Burbaugh told the County Council. “We’ve got a good mix of properties.”
The A-list denotes higher-priority environmental lands, as recommended by the Volusia Forever Advisory Committee. Negotiations will now begin between county officials and the owners of these properties.
There is also a B-list, with three properties that may also be of interest to the county, but are deemed to be less critical or lacking in connectivity to other environmental parcels already in public ownership or under conservation easements.
Of the 15 tracts on the A-list, 10 may be “fee simple” purchases, meaning outright public ownership of the lands, using Volusia Forever funds combined with state cash to buy the properties to preserve them in their natural condition.
The other five properties may be open for conservation easements, meaning the county would leave the lands in private ownership, but purchase the development rights. For example, an agricultural easement would allow the landowner to continue farming, including livestock production or harvesting timber, but the land may not be transformed into a residential subdivision or a commercial center.
When the county buys environmentally sensitive land, it usually has a state funding partner, such as the St. Johns River Water Management District or the Department of Environmental Protection.
As it prioritized its intended future purchases of environmental lands, the County Council also approved a funding agreement with the Water Management District to buy 854 acres in Osteen and purchase development rights on 422 acres nearby. Both parcels are north of Maytown Road and east of the Palm Bluff Conservation Area, a 3,321-acre spread that the Water Management District already owns and manages.
The county and state are buying the 854-acre tract, known as the Schroeder property, for a total price of $2.442 million. The county is spending $1.343 million of Volusia Forever funds, and the Water Management District is paying almost $1.1 million.
The partnership is also purchasing development rights on the adjoining 422 acres, known as the Russell property.
“This piece is about 70 percent uplands and about 30 percent wetlands,” Burbaugh said.
The buyers are splitting the $701,662 price evenly to prevent development on the site. Under the contract between the county and the Russell family, “the county and the SJRWMD will have the right to annually inspect and enforce the terms and conditions of the conservation easement,” a county memo notes.
At the urging of DeBary’s leaders, the county is also supporting acquisition of a choice parcel on the north side of the bend of the St. Johns River for a future nature park and a freshwater-research and educational center. The 170-acre Alexander Island parcel is for sale at an asking price of $3.9 million.
“For us, we are two years into the process,” DeBary Mayor Karen Chasez told the County Council. “We have been working with Florida Forever, and we are one of the willing partners. … I hope that you can join us in imagining this.”
Owned by the Recicar Trust, Alexander Island is mostly wetlands, and is already zoned as a Resource Corridor. There are approximately 17 upland acres where as many as 68 single-family homes could be built, if the property remains privately owned.
“We have a one-time opportunity,” City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said, adding DeBary is willing to be a partner in the acquisition of Alexander Island. “I ask that you designate this property as your No. 1 priority.”
“I’m ecstatic about that property,” County Council Member Billie Wheeler said.
County Chair Jeff Brower also spoke in favor of a future purchase of the land.
“It’s also critically important to the health of two springs,” he said, referring to Gemini Springs in DeBary and Blue Spring, west of Orange City.
With the two latest purchases, the Volusia Forever fund now has about $5.4 million for other conservation transactions.
History of Volusia County land-buying
Volusia County has 35 years’ experience in buying and setting aside environmentally sensitive land. The first round of endangered-land acquisitions occurred as a result of a 1986 amendment to the county’s home-rule charter.
The amendment, approved in a countywide referendum, provided for the levy of a quarter-of-a-mill ad valorem tax to fund the purchases of environmental acreage for water-source protection and natural beauty. Under that program, the county, along with state agencies, shielded 18,241 acres from the pressures of urbanization.
The 1986 charter amendment was superseded by passage of the Volusia Forever referendum in 2000.
The first round of Volusia Forever lasted 20 years, expiring in 2021. The program was funded at the local level with a one-fifth-of-a-mill property tax, or 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value, with the understanding that the county will seek to leverage its share for joint purchases with the state.
Volusia Forever resulted in the public acquisition of 39,093 acres, much of it in the Volusia Conservation Corridor. Most of the acquisitions were fee-simple purchases, while the county arranged for conservation easements on another 16,327 acres.
The program was so popular that a majority of the county’s voters in the 2020 general election reauthorized it for another 20 years.
Volusia Forever is not to be confused with Volusia ECHO. ECHO is an acronym for “environmental, cultural, historic and outdoor recreation,” and the program funds the purchase of properties for those types of uses.
Like Volusia Forever, ECHO depends on a one-fifth-of-a-mill property tax to fund its grants. Volusia ECHO was likewise first approved in a referendum on the 2000 general-election ballot, and renewed by voters for another 20 years in 2020.
Volusia Forever projects: (https://www.volusia.org/core/fileparse.php/7135/urlt/3-10-Meeting-Powerpoint_Final.pdf)
Volusia Forever’s A-list
Doan — 4.3 acres — New Smyrna Beach, adjacent to Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve
Mazeika — 48 acres — Ponce Inlet, adjacent to the Ponce Preserve Conservation Project
Schroeder-Bowman — 858 acres — Osteen, adjacent to the Palm Bluff Conservation Area
Russell — 422 acres — Osteen, adjacent to the Palm Bluff Conservation Area
Baylor — 3,576 acres — Seville, abuts Crescent Lake Conservation Area
Stewart and Howarth — 1,954 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area
Stewart Family — 274 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area
CMM & CF Investments — 195 acres — Edgewater, abuts Turnbull Hammock Conservation Area
Carter Volusia Land Trust — 1,339 acres — New Smyrna Beach, abuts Deep Creek Preserve
Frank A. Ford Trust — 1,200 acres — Ormond Beach, Bulow Creek State Park abuts the property on three sides, and a portion is connected to North Peninsula State Park
Stonestreet — 368 acres — DeLeon Springs, abuts Clark Bay Conservation Area
Kirton — 332 acres — Port Orange
Deep Creek Reserve — 300 acres — Osteen, abuts Farmton Green Key Conservation Area
Recicar Trust — 170 acres — across the river from Black Bear Wilderness Area, near DeBary
Lukas Nursery — 160 acres — Osteen, abuts Wiregrass Prairie Preserve
Volusia Groves & Cattle — 128 acres — DeLand, Moore Lake
Sternstein — 71 acres — Oak Hill, abuts Canaveral National Seashore
Wisniewski — 69 acres — DeLeon Springs, abuts Clark Bay Conservation Area
Baker — 41 acres — Osteen
Penland & Pomerenke — 19 acres — Ormond Beach, abuts Riverbend Nature Park