From the Citrus County Chronicle:

Farmers discuss state land sales

Representatives of Citrus County’s farming community are cautiously welcoming talks by the water management district to consider selling government-owned property — so long as it doesn’t mean the lands will be cleared for development.
Members of the Agricultural Alliance of Citrus County on Monday discussed an announcement that the Southwest Florida Water Management District will review about 30,000 acres of district property in the county to see if portions should be sold.
Gov. Rick Scott has mandated the five water management districts review their holdings to trim off lands not needed for conservation.
Agricultural Alliance members said they support returning government-owned lands to private ownership in some cases, but stressed land once set aside for agricultural or conservation purposes should stay that way.

On invitation by the Chairman, Dale McLellan, I attended an Ag Alliance meeting for the first time yesterday.  My interest is in finding ways that industry and agriculture can work together, especially by finding industrial uses for agricultural waste products.

I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge represented in this group.  Cooperation between the Ag Alliance and the EDC will be useful in the long run.  This group clearly understands the importance of regional cooperation and not only should we be able to leverage our membership in the Tampa Bay Partnership in their favor, but we should also be able to leverage their personal connections with farmers, ranchers, and landowners elsewhere in the Partnership as well as in Sumter and Lake Counties for the benefit of all businesses.

On to the topic of the post:  The Governor continues to retrench the Water Management Districts, this time by trying to return some public lands to private ownership.  Most of these lands were purchased over the years for water conservation purposes; however, some include areas that serve no water conservation purpose, but were part of an acquired parcel or were a gift during some DRI negotiations or something like that.

I remain ambivalent about the Governor’s plan:  on the positive side, getting some economic return out of some of these lands is a plus.  Citrus has somewhere on the order of half its land area under federal, state, or local government ownership.  That’s a pretty big chunk of the county just taken out of the economy, for the most part.  It’s also the case that SWFWMD is not a land management agency and owning so much land really takes them outside of their core mission:  water resource management.

One more–I hate to even broach this since I’ll be called the D-word (as in, Developer, probably with some epithet attached that is inappropriate for this family-friendly blog), still–as important as they are ecologically and environmentally, the amount and the distribution of these lands really inhibits retail trade and accessiblity in the county.  I know there aren’t many SWFWMD properties that will make much difference here, but there are considerable Withlacoochee State Forest properties along SR 44, CR 491, and CR 581 that serve little ecological purpose, are difficult to manage by the Division, and could be appropriate for commercial and/or residential use.  And what about another east-west connector connecting Homosassa to the east side of the county, maybe along Trail 10?  That would shave 5 to 10 minutes off my journey to the Freezer!

On the negative side, these lands were purchased for a purpose and we need to make sure that making them surplus does not undermine that purpose.  Also, this might not be the best time to dump a bunch of land on the market.  I’m no fan of the government buying or holding property to “stabilize” (read:  inflate) prices, but I also fear the disruption that a new several thousand acres might have on the real estate market in the short-run.  Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that all these lands have had their development rights basically removed on the Future Land Use maps, so any future buyer will have to deal with an unsuitable land use category.  That’s not a problem for most agriculture or if you want one house on a quarter section, but any more intense use will require a land use change.  That’s good for Achievable Solutions, Inc–we’ll be happy to help you make that application, just call us at 352-527-9003–but maybe less so to any prospective purchaser.

Finally, I know the politicians would like to see some of these lands back on the tax rolls, but that’s of less interest to me:  the fiscal effect will be minor since as conservation lands, they demand few to no services; so, you don’t get any tax revenue for them, but you really don’t pay anything out for them either.  And this could be a real disaster for the county fiscally if they aren’t careful.  I’ve been talking quite a bit to the Property Appraiser, Geoff Greene, and to Avis Craig in his office about the fiscal effects of different land uses, we’ll eventually need to do a real study of this, but right now we’re estimating that residential uses cost $1.11 in services provided for every $1 collected in taxes.  It’d be a downright shame if, in order to increase tax revenue, we built a bunch of houses that end up costing more than they pay.  As the old joke goes:  “Oh, that’s okay, we may lose money on each one, but we make it up in volume.”

And this brings me back full circle to the Ag Alliance.  Agriculture has the best opportunity to provide a reasonable transition for these lands.  Farmers, ranchers, and foresters are excellent land managers.  Agriculture demands very little in the way of public services (a Colorado study I’ve seen estimates it at $0.35 for every $1 paid in taxes).   And agriculture has significant linkages and spillovers into other industries, so it makes for good economic development.

Now if we can only convince the state to do this right . . .

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