Alachua County’s elected leaders have approved two new plans on how they will use $188 million in taxpayer money.
In November 2022, voters in Alachua County helped pass an infrastructure surtax that will be in place for the next 10 years. It’s a 1% sales tax, equating to one cent on the dollar. Half of this tax will be dedicated to the improvement of Alachua County conservation lands, along with the creation and renovation of parks and open spaces. Over the next 10 years, the surtax is projected to bring in $188 million of taxpayer money to put toward these projects.
On Feb. 7, the Alachua County Commission held a special meeting to discuss plans for how they would best use this sum of money. The two plans up for approval were the Alachua County Forever Land Conservation and Management Program 10-Year Plan and the Parks and Open Space Master Plan.
After hours of deliberation, the committee approved the Land Conservation and Management 10-year plan as it was presented during the meeting. The plan was submitted to the managers of a 23-year-old program called Alachua County Forever, whose mission is “to acquire, improve, and manage environmentally significant lands that protect water resources, wildlife habitats and natural areas suitable for resource-based recreation.”
From 2016 to 2022, the program spent approximately $42 million on the acquisition and management of 32,687 acres of conservation land.
According to Andi Christman, the program manager for the Alachua County Forever program, today “there are currently 156 thousand acres that have not been acquired or not yet protected in those Alachua County Forever project areas.”
The county mapped out an original minimum target plan of protecting 30% of the county’s land and water by 2030. Recent data suggest that this plan will not be enough, and the county has a decision to make.
“If we were to accept that 30 by ‘30 goal as our target, knowing that it is recognized to probably not be adequate. That represents approximately 43,000 more acres needed to be protected. At our current price of $3,177 an acre, knowing that price is only going to increase, that would represent approximately $138 million dollars,” Christman said.
With the price per acre expected to increase in the coming years, the county adopted a new alternative goal to protect 50% of the county’s land and water by 2050, which would equate to nearly 62 thousand acres and $197 million at current market price value.
The county decided that they would split the funding between land conservation and park development in an 80 percent to 20 percent split.
The 80% for land conservation funding is projected to be $151 million over the 10-year span. The amount allows the county to take a step toward the new goal of 50% coverage.
In addition, the commission approved the Parks and Open Space Master plan, but only as a visionary document for how they will allocate the funds.
“I’m prepared to support the master plan in concept, but I think we need to have another meeting or two to get into the details of what’s our short term, and then mid and long-term plan,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said.
Many of the problems that came up in this discussion were along the lines of funding and making it work with the rest of the county’s plans.
“While I appreciate this approach, I guess I am wondering where certain pieces of this connect to some of the other work that we are doing,” Commissioner Anna Prizzia said
In totality, to carry out the proposed Park and Open Space Master Plan, it would cost approximately $88 million. With the 80 to 20 splits of the surtax revenue, the Park plan will only see roughly $38 million of these funds.
That is why they voted to reconvene in 90 to 120 days, when they will discuss how existing county properties can be used in the short term to fit this plan, as well as looking into what conservation land and open space is available as future targets for the plan.