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Fast-tracked environmental protection ballot measure derailed

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A proposal to fast track a citizens referendum preserving Seminole County’s natural lands was derailed at a Seminole County Commission meeting July 26, but may soon return in another form.

Save Rural Seminole President David Bear spoke at length before the Commission about refunding Seminole County’s Natural Lands Program, which buys up and preserves natural land in the county as well as paying for maintenance and upkeep on trails. That program had seen multi-year funding extensions before additional votes were needed to renew it, but the fund is running nearly empty, he said.

“Today that program is effectively out of money,” Bear said. “There is no more money to acquire additional natural lands. It’s a wonderful program, but if we don’t fund it then we’re effectively discontinuing it.”

Bear and a group of supporters were there to push for a citizen referendum to be put on the ballot for Seminole County residents to vote to add funds to the program. That group had researched the need for the funding, the desire by residents to see it approved, and the history of the state’s treatment of natural lands. But the referendum proposal met with some resistance from the Commission, with commissioners suggesting alternatives but stopping short of endorsing it.

“This was a 6-week speed race,” Commissioner Andria Herr said to the coalition led by Bear to get a referendum on the ballot ahead of fall elections. “I appreciate the effort that was put forth, but I feel like I should be fired if I put something on the ballot this quickly. I just don’t agree with the lack of due process that we’ve had.”

Commissioner Lee Constantine pushed for adding money into the county budget, a move that could have occurred during the July 26 meeting, he said.

Citing the statewide natural lands program Florida Forever, Constantine said that a potential “Seminole Forever” program “would have no new taxes” but would come out of the county’s budget.

“We don’t have to take it to referendum,” Constantine said. “We can have it guaranteed now, today.”

But some residents, and some commissioners, disagreed with the efficacy of the Florida Forever program in sparing land for public use and conservation. Conservation activist Katrina Shadix, who is running for Seminole County Commission District 2, said that the Florida Forever program was not serving its purpose.

“It has been ignored and brazenly abused since its passage,” she said. “It’s an overall failure due to politicians’ destruction of the process as they have consistently misallocated and raided the funds. The state now owes us over a billion dollars in conservation land purchases which makes it all the more important to give seminole county residents the right to vote on the superior program that Mr. Bear presented today.”

Constantine said that asking for repeated citizen referendums would just make the process have to restart every few years.

“We need to establish a priority that conservation needs to be in our budget, in our current funds,” he said. “And once again, ladies and gentlemen, it is a very small amount. $5 million is a very small goal in a general budget.”

Commission Chairman Bob Dallari said he didn’t like the idea of promising money in perpetuity before the Commission could be sure any would be there.

“It’s difficult to sit here and say we’re going to be putting X amount of millions of dollars together for this program without knowing where the money’s coming from,” Dallari said. “And I’m a little reluctant to sit here and to say ‘Let’s move forward’ and doing that when in this last budget process we’ve had to balance out the budget with ARPA [federal COVID-19 relief] funds.”

“I’m not opposed to a natural lands program, but we need to make sure we’re doing it wisely,” he said.

The Commission voted 5-0 to direct the County Attorney and staff to bring forward a budget item that would include natural lands to potentially add into the county’s budget at an upcoming meeting.

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