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The Planet

Saving Open Space on the "Space Coast"

by Tom Valtin

One year after a resounding defeat at the ballot box, proponents of a land preservation measure in Brevard County, Florida, came back for a second try, and captured nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Why the turnaround? In a word …well, two words… the Sierra Club. And more specifically, the Florida Chapter's Turtle Coast Group, located on the Sunshine State's "Space Coast" - embracing the region around the Kennedy Space Center.

Space Coast
Success! Turtle Coast Group (Florida) Conservation Chair Amy Tidd celebrates passage of a successful land perservation ballot measure in Brevard County.

Referendum 2, the successful November 2004 ballot measure, sets aside $60 million in tax dollars to buy and protect Brevard County open space. The referendum was the brainchild of Turtle Coast Group Conservation Chair Amy Tidd.

Tidd says the 2003 ballot initiative failed because it was a grab-bag of spending proposals. "Referendum 2, by contrast, funded only the land-acquisition program," she explains. "And it didn't raise people's tax rate; it extended an expiring Beach and Riverfront Acquisition tax."

Referendum 2 shifted the funds to the county's Environmentally Endangered Lands program, established in a special election in 1990 and also due to expire. For the next 20 years, approximately 20 cents on every $1,000 of taxable property value in Brevard County will go to land conservation. And whereas the Beach and Riverfront Tax had previously been used only to protect oceanfront acres or lands fronting on the Indian River Lagoon, the new funds can be used to purchase inland scrub habitat and lands that would connect existing open space.

"Scrub may not sound like a precious commodity," Tidd says, "but it's incredibly rich biologically, home to endangered gopher tortoises, scrub jays, and rare plants." Scrub acres also capture rainwater and recharge the Florida aquifer, which provides most of the state's drinking water.

Ecotourism is booming in Brevard, so protecting the environment is in the county's economic interest. The U.S. EPA recently designated the Indian River Lagoon as "an estuary of national significance." Located at the boundary between the temperate and sub-tropical zones, the lagoon system supports more than 3,000 species of animals and plants, making it arguably the most biologically diverse estuarine system in the Lower 48.

The Environmentally Endangered Lands program currently controls about 18,000 acres in Brevard County, but local biologists have targeted an additional 70,000 acres for conservation. "Development is occurring at a blistering pace in Brevard, and these lands won't be available to buy for protection in five years - or maybe even next year," Tidd says.

Just over a year ago, a local citizens committee recommended that the Environmentally Endangered Lands program be extended. Trouble was, the program was out of money. So Tidd started brainstorming a way to fund the program and get a proposal on the 2004 ballot.

Attending county meetings, she quickly ascertained that the Beach and Riverfront tax could indeed be shifted to the Environmentally Endangered Lands program.

In August, Tidd succeeded in getting Referendum 2 placed on the November ballot, and she formed a political action committee, Preserve Brevard, to lobby and raise funds for the effort. Most of the Preserve Brevard Executive Committee was made up Sierra Club members, and Tidd credits Turtle Coast Group treasurer Maureen Parent for helping form Preserve Brevard, Mary Sphar for chairing the "walking committee," and phone banking committee chair Cammie Donaldson for helping publicize and promote the plan.

Club members submitted articles and letters to the local paper, Florida Today, and Preserve Brevard printed up buttons and recruited allies, including the Space Coast Audubon Society. "Twice in August a bunch of us dressed in green and packed county commissioners meetings," Tidd says. "We filled the chamber both times. After that, Florida Today endorsed Referendum 2, the public really got behind it, and things just snowballed."

Despite powerful and well-financed opposition, the measure passed handily. "It's noteworthy that Brevard County gave President Bush nearly 58 percent of its votes in November, yet almost 70 percent supported Referendum 2," Tidd says. "Preserving endangered lands is not a partisan issue."

Photo: Jim Woodfin; used with permission.

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