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Polk County prepares to vote on restarting a land conservation property tax next month

Tree next to some shrubbery on the edge of what appears to be a forest in the middle of the day
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Service
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The tax would cost property owners 20 cents for every thousand dollars in home value. Estimates show it would cost the average property owner between $30 and $40 per year, and earn the county over $300 million for land acquisition and preservation.

The property tax initially ran from 1995 until 2015, and provided Polk County with over $80 million it used for preserving properties.

Polk County voters will decide whether to restart a tax dedicated to purchasing and preserving land for conservation next year.

The property tax initially ran from 1995 until 2015, and provided Polk County with over $80 million it used for preserving properties such as the popular Circle B Bar Preserve and the Lakeland Highlands Scrub.

Several conservation groups, such as the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Audubon Florida, have shown support for the referendum, which would have the same 20-year shelf life as its predecessor.

Tom Palmer, a retired journalist and board member for Polk Forever, a political action committee pushing for the referendum's passage, calls this vote a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

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"Lands not gonna get any cheaper, the opportunities are not going to get any better,” Palmer said. “They always say the best time to buy real estate was 10 years ago. We can't wait. We shouldn't have to wait."

Palmer says with the population of Polk County booming to over 700,000, there are threats of development for environmentally sensitive lands.

"Over the next 20 years, Polk County's population will be approaching a million,” Palmer said. “That puts an awful lot of pressure [on the county].”

The tax would cost property owners 20 cents for every thousand dollars in home value. Estimates show it would cost the average property owner between $30 and $40 per year, and earn the county over $300 million for land acquisition and preservation.

A tweak in this rendition of the tax would allow the county to purchase conservation easements, which would allow property owners to stay on the land as long as they don’t develop it.

Lands not gonna get any cheaper, the opportunities are not going to get any better. They always say the best time to buy real estate was 10 years ago. We can't wait. We shouldn't have to wait.
Tom Palmer, board member for Polk Forever

Any land purchases would need to be approved by the Polk County Commission.

But the addition of that easement option has some questioning the magnitude of the property tax. County Commissioner George Lindsey voted earlier this year against putting the referendum on the ballot.

“I think it's an overreach. It’s too much,” Lindsey said.

In the same meeting that the referendum was approved for the November ballot, Lindsey proposed lowering the property tax to 10 cents per $1,000 in home value, but it was rejected by a majority of the commission.

“To buy a conservation easement across the property and allow the home the property owner to keep his land allows the dollars to go further,” Lindsey said. ”So I thought, yes, the objective is worthwhile. But there's a tolerance and a limit. And I thought .2 mills was too much.”

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Lindsey said he doesn’t think the tax's price tag will hurt Polk County residents too much, but other alternative options for generating revenue — like a statewide doc stamp tax — would be more effective while applying to more than just property owners.

Polk County Commissioner Neil Combee also has concerns about the economic impact of the tax.

"It couldn't get much worse than this with fuel prices, with rent and food prices,” Combee said. “Everything seems like it’s going in the wrong direction for working people."

Supporters of the tax say potential development could cause some of its rural character to be lost.

“Don't get me wrong, we're not against anybody,” Palmer said. “I guess we're going after some of the same properties, but it's just a race against time. Will it be developed or will it be preserved?”

Commissioners Combee and Lindsey believe that current zoning regulations will prevent any heavy development from infiltrating environmentally sensitive lands.

“Make a decision with your head, not your heart,” Lindsey said. “That growth is occurring in concentric circles from an urban core, where there are urban services like central water and sewer and in proximity to schools and avoid leapfrogging sprawl provides a variety of different to housing inside the urban core. This initiative actually will have little or no effect on those growth rings emerging from the urban core.”

If passed, Palmer said the tax will be focused on preserving land in four key areas — the Green Swamp, Polk County Highlands, Upper Kissimmee Basin, and the Peace River.

“As the population grows, we need more public land because so people can visit,” Palmer said. “And also, so it’s kind of spread around the county so it's convenient, where you don't have to drive all the way across the county to go do something.”

In the weeks leading up to it, Palmer said Polk Forever is holding several talks and meeting with stakeholders across the county to garner more support.

Polk County voters will find it at the bottom of their 2022 general election ballot, listed as “Acquisition and Management of Water Resources and Environmental Lands Bond Referendum.”

Corrected: October 20, 2022 at 1:38 PM EDT
The property tax initially ran from 1995 until 2015. A previous version of this story listed different dates.
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