LAND, LAND, EVERYWHERE — This graphic shows the proposed Lake to Lagoon project area, outlined in light orange. The green color denotes land that has been set aside for conservation, and is therefore protected against the spread of man-made change.

Volusia County is joining another effort to preserve endangered land — and also to boost the Florida-grown food supply.

With a unanimous vote, the County Council Aug. 1 agreed to participate with the Alachua Conservation Trust in a regional effort to seek federal funding for the purchase of more environmentally sensitive lands and the creation of more conservation easements on agricultural lands.

“It’s a letter of support so they can be competitive in the process,” Brad Burbaugh, formerly the county’s director of Resource Stewardship and recently named director of Community Services, said.

The Alachua Conservation Trust is a private nonprofit organization.

“Please vote in favor of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program,” Volusia Forever Advisory Board Member Suzanne Scheiber urged the council.

A vital part of the effort of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is to secure funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Funding comes from the farm bills enacted by the Congress. Volusia County and the ACT are seeking $25 million from the NRCS, and the County Council readily agreed to give a letter of support for the ACT’s proposal.

The partnership, as presented by the county administration and the ACT, is to be a five-year process of acquiring more public lands and establishing conservation easements on agricultural lands. Starting in 2024 and continuing through 2029, Volusia County will set aside at least $20 million of the Volusia Forever tax proceeds for land purchases and conservation easements in an area that covers all of Volusia County and parts of Lake and Flagler counties.

The area is known as the Lake to Lagoon area, as it includes Lake George and the Indian River Lagoon. Although the partnership region includes parts of adjoining counties, Volusia Forever tax dollars are to be used only for the purchases of lands or easements within Volusia County. The county will deal only with willing sellers.

To qualify for the maximum dollar-for-dollar federal grant amount of $25 million, Volusia officials have also secured commitments from a host of other state and local agencies, including the Florida Forest Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the St. Johns River Water Management District, and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.

Stetson University has also signed on as a partner. These other agencies are to contribute about $5 million to supplement the $20 million from Volusia Forever to qualify for the matching $25 million, if the NRCS approves the request by the county and the ACT. The deadline for applying is Aug. 18.

“We’ll find out in three or four months whether we’re going to get the funding,” Tom Kay, executive director of the ACT, said.

Founded in 1988, the ACT has been active in helping to save endangered lands over a much wider area than its name suggests.

“We’ve been around for 35 years,” Kay told The Beacon. “We’ve got projects as far west as Okaloosa, near Alabama, and we’ve got property projects in Wakulla and Franklin counties.”

In fact, Kay said, the ACT has worked or is working to save environmental lands in 16 counties in Florida.

A conservation easement is an arrangement whereby the owners of farms or woodlands may continue to cultivate crops, raise livestock or harvest timber, but they may not sell the land for higher-intensity development, such as housing subdivisions or industrial parks.

The owners of such tracts give up the development rights and may receive tax breaks, while the land is safeguarded against urban encroachment.

“The landowner agrees to follow best-management practices,” Kay added.

Conservation easements are generally perpetual, he said, meaning if the land changes hands, the easement remains in place and does not expire. Conservation easements are often less costly than outright acquisitions of land and fee-simple ownership.

Square miles of land in Volusia County
Total acres of land in Volusia County
Acres set aside in Volusia County for conservation
Percent of Volusia County land that is protected

Kay also highlighted another aspect of conserving agricultural lands.

“We’re trying to increase land protection via conservation easements. The big focus is protecting primarily agricultural lands and the farming,” he said. “One of the big things in [Washington,] D.C., is protecting food security. During the pandemic, with supply chains breaking down, that impacted farmers dramatically. By protecting the domestic food supply, we’re not relying on sources outside the state or outside the country for food security.”

“By helping farmers, we help ourselves,” Scheiber said.

The County Council voted 5-0 to join with the ACT in the Lake to Lagoon venture. Council Members Don Dempsey and Jake Johansson were absent.

As well as approving the letter to Kay and the ACT endorsing the Lake to Lagoon Regional Conservation Partnership Program and committing $20 million from Volusia Forever as matching funds for grants from the NRCS, the council authorized County Manager George Recktenwald to take steps to fulfill the council’s policy decision.


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