FORT MYERS, Fla. - Untouched and unspoiled beauty in Southwest Florida could someday be up for sale. A couple of weeks ago, we first told you about the Department of Environmental Protections State Conversational Land Assessment, that could result in the sale of some of the most pristine parts of our area. We're talking about 9 acres on Cayo Costa, 26 acres in Charlotte Harbor State Park and 47 acres in the Yucca Pens unit of the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management area.
The idea has people worried. Thursday night, they got their first chance to voice their concerns straight to a DEP rep. They also got some good news. As of Thursday, the largest parcel of land on Cayo Costa - 5.3 acres - was taken off the list. While that brought some relief, the overwhelming majority at the meeting in came to tell the DEP why it should leave the remaining 85 acres in Southwest Florida alone.
"We're a little flabbergasted that this is even occurring," Phil Buchanan with Greater Pine Island Civic Association said. "The environmental significance of Cayo Costa goes without saying. Everyone around here knows it. Apparently, they don't know it in Tallahassee. Maybe they don't know about the sea turtles nesting on the island, they don't know the endangered species."
Here's how the assessment is working. Lawmakers are giving the DEP up to $50 million dollars if they sell up to $50 million dollars in no-longer-needed conservation land. The DEP is now looking at which land has the lowest value. They'll sell it and use that money to buy land with higher value, land that better protects springs and other resources.
Marianne Gegenbach, Administrator of the Office of Environmental Services within the Division of State Lands, said the assessment could come with benefits for everyone. "Conservation lands are bought with taxpayer dollars. If taxpayer dollars can be better invested over time, I think that's a winning combination," Gegenbach said. "We would hope that impacts down here would be to help along the lines of water quality."
But even more valuable than dollars, speakers made clear, is historical and ecological value of disappearing "old Florida" land. "When somebody goes out there camping, walking on the beach, walking in the woods, they're seeing what the Calusas saw," one woman said.
"To suggest that we are going to sell beachfront here in order to buy land next to a military base in he panhandle makes no sense," another man said.
One of the biggest concerns is, what could happen to the land once it's bought. Buyers have to follow local and state rules. On Cayo Costa for example, Lee County zoning prohibits large commercial development, like an eight-story hotel. DEP officials say that scenario is many months and meetings away. Even if local parcels go up for sale, they'd first be offered to state agencies, universities, and local governments before being opened up to the public.