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Polk County environmentalists want a land conservation tax on the November ballot

Crooked Lake
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Crooked Lake, south of Lake Wales, is on the wish list of lands to be preserved

If commissioners agree to schedule the referendum and voters approve it, the tax would be levied beginning in 2023 and remain in effect for 20 years.

Polk County had a tax to purchase environmentally sensitive lands for two decades. Now, there's a push to hold a November referendum to consider reviving the program.

A group called called "Polk Forever" wants to resurrect a property tax that was in place from 1994 to 2015. It would levy a tax of 20 cents per $1,000 on taxable property.

Organizer Tom Palmer is a former environmental reporter for The Ledger newspaper. He estimates the tax would bring in about $8.2 million a year. That money could multiply the buying power of sources such as land trusts and other partners.

"We're just trying to fill in gaps, trying to do what we can to get whatever the state doesn't pick because the state's more interested in some of the mega-projects," Palmer said. "So we're a good fit in this kind of total mosaic of land acquisition ventures."

Palmer said a similar tax was passed by voters in 1994 but had no official support.

"It is tough sell," Palmer said. "But on the other hand, we keep getting a lot of feedback from people who are tired of all the land being gobbled up and they'd like some green space."

Palmer says the proposed tax could purchase smaller plots not on the state's radar, such as a parcel near Babson Park on Crooked Lake. The lake is one of the largest in Polk and is on the Lake Wales Ridge, which was the only part of Florida above water two million years ago.

Polk County commissioners said at their March 1 meeting they need more information about the proposal, but agreed to discuss it at a future date.

If commissioners agree to schedule the referendum and voters approve it, the tax would be levied beginning in 2023 and remain in effect for 20 years.

If the measure is to go on the November ballot, a decision must come by summer, County Attorney Randy Mink said.

Here's some information from news release from Polk Forever:

The 1994 referendum provided funding to purchase, manage or enable the preservation of more than 25,000 acres of conservation lands at sites stretching from the Green Swamp to the Lake Wales Ridge. The program also helped to fund the development of Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve, one of 13 sites purchased by funds from the 1994 referendum that is open to the public.

An estimated 70% of the purchase and development costs for those sites was paid for with matching funds from state and regional agencies.

The purposes behind the referendum:

  • To preserve Polk’s remaining wildlands that provide habitat for thousands of species of native plants and animals, including 25 plant species and 18 animal species that are in danger of extinction unless adequate habitat is preserved
  • To connect existing conservation lands to remove gaps that can lead to habitat fragmentation
  • To improve the county’s trail system through and between natural areas
  • To improve access to conservation lands and water bodies

Key areas that are priorities for the program:

  • The Green Swamp, which contains important aquifer recharge areas, the headwaters of four rivers and the hub for series of statewide wildlife corridors
  • The Lake Wales Ridge, a series of prehistoric islands that contains the largest concentration of rare and endangered species in North America
  • The Upper Kissimmee River Basin, which contains important sections of the headwaters of the Everglades, habitat for uncommon wildlife species and the largest concentration of bald eagles south of Alaska
  • The Upper Peace River, the headwaters of a 100-mile wildlife and recreational corridor

All land and conservation easement purchases would be from willing sellers.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.