When Osceola County commissioners adopted a 60-year plan for developing portions of the Deseret Ranch in September, they also set the wheels in motion to prevent the sale and development of other ranches in the county.
The BOCC told Jeff Jones, their director of strategic policy, to bring back a plan within six months for acquiring development rights from the county's ranchers.
"Right now we're really focused on conservation easements," Jones told GrowthSpotter. "We want the ranchers to be able to stay in ranching."
Jones said the idea actually grew out of discussions with environmental groups over their concerns about the North Ranch Plan. "One of the problems we've always had with the North Ranch Plan is people see this and they think project. They see a 133,000-acre subdivision," he said. "We see it as comprehensive planning."
The ranch, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is large enough to accommodate 500,000 people between 2030 and 2080, he said.
"And it leaves the area south of US 192 rural - that's 70 percent of the county," Jones said. "We've essentially planned out urban development for the next century. So the idea is let's start working with the state to buy the development rights with state funding."
Audubon Florida's Charles Lee said the county made a strategic decision with the adoption of the North Ranch Plan in September to direct future growth east rather than south. "That raises the question of what happens to the development rights of all those land owners to the south – all the way to the Okeechobee county line," he said.
Several local ranches have already sold conservation easements to the state through Forever Florida and the Department of Agriculture's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The program owns an easement over 7,900 acres of the Adams Ranch, and last month the Florida Board of Trustees approved the $4 million purchase price for conservation easements to protect nearly 1,300 acres of Seminole County's Kilbee Ranch.
Osceola's Double C Bar Ranch and Camp Lonesome are on Rural and Family Lands' priority list. And Adams Ranch is getting ready to sell an easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, Lee said.
"They want to be able to operate the ranch in perpetuity," Lee said. "Many of the land owners are interested in selling their development rights. Some of them have approached all these sources."
Even with an agricultural zoning, property owners are entitled to build one home for every 5 acres of land. But when a family patriarch dies, the heirs are taxed based on the "highest and best use" of the land. Before the easement programs were developed, many Florida ranching families were forced to pay millions of dollars in inheritance tax or donate huge swaths of their land for public use.
"It helps with the inheritance tax issue, because when you strip away the development rights, it would be assessed as agricultural land instead of at its highest and best development potential," Jones said.
The county collects about two-tenths of a mill for its Save Osceola environmental lands program, but the majority of that funding goes to pay debt service. The 2016 budget has less than $1 million available for land acquisition or easements.
County Manager Don Fisher got a commitment from the Legislative Delegation to make it a priority for the next session. "Really if you think about it, Florida Forever had been funded at $300 million," he said. "We'd like to see the funding restored to that level, and if Amendment 1 is the vehicle to do that, that is a consideration the legislature should take."
Jones said one of his tasks is to determine if local dollars can be utilized to supplement or leverage state funding for conservation lands and easements.
Lee said the county also could establish a program similar to Save Osceola that would allow for the acquisition of conservation easements. The current program requires that environmental lands be maintained in a natural state, which means they can't be used for farming or ranching.