Posted On: January 7, 2021
With voters extending the life of Volusia Forever, the Volusia County Council began the process Thursday of deciding how the popular land preservation program will operate for the next 20 years.
Volusia County residents initially voted in 2000 to establish Volusia Forever along with a companion program, Volusia ECHO. Volusia Forever finances the acquisition and improvement of environmentally sensitive, water resource protection and outdoor recreation lands that are managed by the county as conservation stewards in perpetuity. Since its inception, Volusia Forever has resulted in the acquisition of more than 38,000 acres through purchase and conservation easements. After the bulk of Volusia Forever’s funds were expended, the advisory board that helped oversee the program was suspended in 2011.
Both Volusia Forever and ECHO were scheduled to sunset this year. However, residents voted overwhelmingly in November to extend both programs for another 20 years. The ballot language for the Volusia Forever program expanded the program’s conservation and preservation goals to also include forest and farmlands.
“The critical thing in all of this is access, management and perpetuity,” Clay Ervin, the county’s director of growth and resource management, told council members. “We want this to be something that is a legacy, not just for our grandchildren but beyond.”
On Thursday, the council discussed the operational guidelines for reestablishing the program. Issues include the creation of a new advisory committee and a public education program that would feature at least five listening sessions to get citizen input before the council finalizes the program’s operating procedures. The council decided to move forward on recruiting candidates for the advisory committee so that the committee is in place in time to hear the public’s feedback at the listening sessions before making recommendations to the council. The council also discussed appointing committee members who have relevant knowledge or experience as well as a general interest in the program, in areas such as land management, agriculture and conservation.
“We want to make sure that we get qualified people in there that understand,” said Councilwoman Billie Wheeler. “We need to do that as soon as possible so we can get this rolling.”
The county hopes to have the advisory committee established in March and start the listening sessions in May. The last step in the process will be for the County Council to adopt resolutions formalizing the program’s policies and procedures going forward. Among the objectives will be ensuring a continued balance between public access and recreation with the protection of the natural state and condition of protected lands. The council also will need to address several decision items, such as the process for evaluating properties being considered for purchase, how much money to set aside for land management expenses and whether the county will issue a bond to get program money up-front or establish a pay-as-you go practice as the funds come in. The program is financed by a small, voter-approved annual property tax of a maximum of 1/5 of a mill.