Hillsborough restoring money to land-buying program

ELAPP funds acquired Big Cockroach Mound from private owners last year. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

ELAPP funds acquired Big Cockroach Mound from private owners last year. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

By Mike Salinero, Tampa Tribune Staff
Source: Tampa Tribune, Published: September 10, 2015
Updated: September 10, 2015 at 09:10 PM

TAMPA – Hillsborough County’s conservation lands program, which was practically bankrupt, is getting an infusion of money thanks to better-than-expected property tax revenues. County Administrator Mike Merrill amended his fiscal 2016 budget to include $15 million for the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, known as ELAPP. County Commissioners gave the budget preliminary approval Thursday night.

The popular land-buying program was down to just $3.5 million – all that remained from a $59 million bond issue county commissioners approved in 2009. The previous year, nearly 80 percent of voters approved continuing the program, authorizing the county to borrow up to $200 million to buy conservation land. But the ballot measure did not include a small property tax that had financed the program in earlier years.

In May, Commissioners Stacy White and Les Miller proposed replenishing the fund with part of a $22.8 million settlement from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The other commissioners, however, opted to save the oil-spill payout until next year for yet-to-be-determined projects. The prospect of the conservation program failing alarmed the environmental community. Merrill said he realized a sizeable segment of county residents and their representatives wanted something done.

“There was the proposal to use the BP settlement for ELAPP and there was support from a segment of the environmental community and from some of the board,” Merrill said. “So we offered it as an option as we were fine-tuning the budget.” Merrill said he was able to “make room” in the budget for ELAPP because the county is getting $6 million more in property tax revenue than was projected when he presented his budget in June. An additional $5 million is coming from the Sheriff’s Office, which often returns money it does not spend out of its yearly county appropriation.

The surplus will also allow the county to spend an additional $6 million on road resurfacing. Residents polled this year by the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative listed road resurfacing as a top priority. White, though happy about Merrill’s decision, said he and Miller deserve some of the credit for pushing ELAPP’s financial plight into the limelight, “I believe wholeheartedly that because of my advocacy and Commissioner Miller’s advocacy (Merrill) saw it as a priority and decided to put this in the budget,” White said.

Miller also said he was glad to see the program funded but he was perplexed about the method Merrill chose. “Either we’re going to have to bond the money or borrow it, but we have to pay the money back,” Miller said. “At the same time, we have the BP money sitting there.” Another supporter, Commissioner Al Higginbotham, said some of the money appropriated for ELAPP should go to maintaining the conservation land already acquired. “We need to start working on the invasive species,” Higginbotham said. “The BP funds should be used to address the maintenance.”

Environmentalists say preserving ELAPP is especially important now that the county is in the throes of another population boom and development is threatening sensitive lands. “As we look at the amount of growth we’re going to have … it’s a little scary,” said Jan Smith, chairwoman of the ELAPP General Committee. “People want to have places to walk in the peace and quiet and explore these pristine sites to enjoy the outdoors.” Smith said the conservation program has 22 parcels on an acquisition priority list totaling 27,129 acres. The priority list was developed after nominated sites were vetted by employees from the county parks department and volunteer biologists. Their recommendations are made to the ELAPP General Committee, which in turn recommends parcels to a site selection committee.

The lands are evaluated using a number of criteria and given A, B or C rankings. Factors considered include whether the land helps protect water quality or is home to endangered or threatened species, if there are archeological features such as Indian mounds, geographic proximity to other ELAPP lands or to important waterways, and the site’s value for long-term scientific study and education. Popular support for a certain site and its cost also weigh in the decision. The ELAPP committee always strives to get the A-listed sites unless they are too expensive or owners are not willing to sell, Smith said. “It’s always been our goal to get sites that we have a reasonable expectation of acquiring,”
Smith said, “sites that we see fit into the whole scheme of those we already have and what they do.”