Preserving Paradise: A Half Cent at a Time
Martin County, Fla – A group of concerned citizens, passionate about preserving vast areas of environmentally sensitive lands, has created a new conservation initiative called Martin County Forever. The group has spent most of this year on outreach and education to determine whether citizens would be supportive of a sales-tax referendum to acquire these lands. Acquiring undeveloped land would help to protect the unique character of Martin County, clean and restore rivers and waterways, safeguard sources of drinking water, preserve valuable wildlife habitat and wetlands, create wildlife corridors and expand recreational opportunities.
“There are environmentally sensitive lands throughout Martin County that need to be preserved now or they are at risk of being lost forever. Our community will never be the same if we don’t act now,” said Merritt Matheson, Martin County Forever committee member and former City of Stuart Mayor.
About 46,000 acres of natural lands within four target areas have been identified by Martin County’s Ecosystem Division for potential acquisition:
- Indian River Lagoon Watershed, 27,000 acres essential to the health of the Lagoon
- Loxa-Lucie, 9,800 acres essential to the health of the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee Rivers
- Pal-Mar, 8,500 acres of some of the highest quality wetlands in Martin County
- Blue-ways, about 400 acres of smaller parcels inside our urban areas and near waterways
The group is proposing that a referendum for a half-cent sales tax be placed on the November 2024 ballot for citizens to vote on. “Martin County residents have a history of taking matters into their own hands to protect our environment and quality of life,” added Matheson. “We’re simply asking the Martin County Commission to allow the citizens to decide if they want to support an initiative to buy these lands.”
If approved, the sales tax could generate about $18.3 million a year for ten years, and much of the land would be eligible for matching state or federal funds, stretching those dollars even further. More than a third of the monies raised would be from visitors who live elsewhere but spend their money in Martin County. The sales tax would only apply to the first $5,000 of any purchase. Importantly, groceries, prescription medication and school supplies would all be exempt.
Martin County has a long, proud history of supporting the preservation of environmentally sensitive lands. Several referendums have been passed where citizens voted to tax themselves to generate funding for land acquisition. A voter approved half-cent sales tax in 2006, for example, generated about $30 million and was used to leverage an additional $30 million from state and federal sources. In fact, many popular local parks and preserves were acquired with funds generated from past referendums. These acquisitions include important preserve areas such as Halpatiokee and Atlantic Ridge state parks, beaches throughout Hutchinson Island, and regionally significant park facilities like Indian Riverside Park. These places are part of the recreational fabric of the community while also improving water quality in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
“We know there may be skeptics, and the devil is in the details, but we’ve structured the referendum language to ensure it does what it is supposed to do and nothing else,” according to committee member Jim Snedeker. A Citizens Advisory Committee would be created to screen land acquisition opportunities. An annual audit would be required. Properties would only be purchased from willing sellers. “Even though discussions about taxes can be controversial, we’ve been surprised and encouraged by the widespread support we’ve received for the initiative,” added Snedeker.
“Martin County is a special place, and we want to keep it that way. It’s our small-town charm, slower pace, low density, beautiful waterways and beaches and abundance of undeveloped, natural lands that sets Martin County apart from so many other places in Florida,” said Matheson. “The time is right to create a funding mechanism to purchase these natural lands and ensure they remain that way during our lifetime and for future generations.”
Martin County Forever has launched a website, www.martincountyforever.com, with more information. To schedule a presentation to your group or association, please contact them at email@example.com and follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/martincountyforever or Instagram at @martincountyforever.