Beyond the Beach, It’s Not All Bushes

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
February 2007

“There are two parts to Indian River County, the beach and the bush…. This (latter) piece of property is completely useless to me as a taxpayer.” This was a comment made by a speaker during the public discussion of the purchase of development rights of the 462 acre Sexton Ranch for $12 million at the January 16th County Commission meeting,

WHOA! Doesn’t this guy understand the long-term value of our western lands? Does he care where his food and water come from, especially in this era of terrorism and contaminated food?

The U.S. now imports more food than it grows. Moreover, next year for the first time more than half of the Earth’s people will live in cities and not rural areas.

A Tale of Two Ranches – The Sexton and Adams. If the county’s commissioners approve the purchase of the Sexton Ranch development rights on February 20th, there will be many benefits for our County:

  • Preserves agriculture. The ranch will remain in agriculture no matter who owns it and there will be no additional houses. Over the years, the ranch has been managed for the long haul producing enough beef @ 60 lbs/yr/ person to feed 3000 people.
  • Provides free land management. The owners will continue to manage the land wisely at no cost to the county. The Soil & Water Conservation District awarded Ralph Sexton the Conservationist of the Year for 2006 as model stewards of the land.
  • County receives income. The Sextons or future owners will continue to pay property taxes, currently ~$10,000.
  • Preserves taxpayer monies. Cows don’t go to school or drive cars. It is estimated that for every $1.00 of potential tax revenue, if the land were developed, the cost of services would be $1.56 for residential developments while services costs are $0.07 for agricultural lands and $0.03 for open lands (Source: Farming for the Future Inc. of Boca Raton, 1994). Thus residential properties cost counties far more due to service and infrastructure costs for schools, roads, bridges, water, sewers, police, fire, mosquito protection, and other general government expenditures.
  • Preserves environment. Habitat for wildlife will be preserved because 25% of the property is wetlands and hammock.
  • Conserves water. The open land captures and replenishes precious groundwater with rainwater that developed land would not; and there is minimal water consumption.
  • Preserves history. The ranch and buildings are historical and our county has few of these treasures left.

These benefits exactly fit the criteria of the $50 million bond referendum for land acquisition, approved by 67% of the voters in 2004. The approval effort, led by PIAS and others, authorized bond money to be spent on historic, agricultural, and environmental lands. During the lead-up to the vote, the Sexton Ranch was used an example of agriculture lands to be considered.

Cow & calf by Bob Montanaro.

An alternative approach to buying development rights to save green space is being proposed in St. Lucie County called the Rural Land Stewardship program, where development rights are transferred from one property to another. In the case of the Adams ranch, the development rights of part of the Adam’s Ranch are removed, to preserve a part of it, and are transferred to a new subdivision called Cloud Grove, on the St. Lucie/Indian River County line. The transfer allows even higher density (12,000 more houses) than the original land use plan. Cloud Grove is not yet approved by the state, and may be in trouble for having too high a density.

Compared with the St. Lucie County approach to land conservation, our county’s negotiated price of $12 million for the development rights of the Sexton ranch is a reasonable deal. This is especially so considering the highly likely, long-term increases in land prices. Unfortunately, one of the arguments against the purchase is that this will be the first major acquisition with county bond funds that will not receive state matching funds. In fact, there is an existing program that could serve this role called the Rural and Family Lands Protection Act, passed in 2004. The problem is that it has not yet been funded by the state legislature. We must make every effort to see that our State Rep. Stan Mayfield, the House Appropriation Committee Chair, and our Senator, Ken Pruitt, this year’s Florida Senate President (both holding key positions) support this program so state money could help pay for the Sexton Ranch purchase as well as other suitable agricultural lands. This statute’s purpose is to “Protect one acre of agricultural land for every acre lost to development.” The Sexton Ranch is a great example where the state and county could partner together to preserve this agricultural land unto perpetuity.

To support the purchase of the Sexton Ranch development rights: Email your County Commissioners:
Sandra Bowden
Gary Wheeler
Wesley Davis
Peter O’Bryan
Joe Flescher
or call them at 567-8000 ext 1490

To fund the Rural and Family Lands Protection Act: Write or call Rep. Stan Mayfield, 222 The Capitol, 402 South Monroe St. Tallahassee, FL 32399 or 1053 20th Place, Vero Beach, FL 32960 Telephone (850) 488-0952 or (772) 778-5077 and Sen. Ken Pruitt, 1850 SW Fountainview Blvd., Suite 200, Port St. Lucie, FL 34986-3443 Telephone (772) 344-1140

Indian River County Background Facts on County’s agriculture and land use:

  • 1500s Spanish plant orange trees and introduce swine. Our county’s non-Native American agriculture begins, which is soon followed by sugarcane (used in the manufacture of rum).
  • 1800s Pineapples, vegetables, cattle, and the harvesting of seafood shipped to the north. Florida land is particularly valuable since the growing season is long and the plants do well.
  • 1900s Our roads, canals, taxing system, commerce, politics, social fiber, and modifications of the lands developed for agriculture based on producing and shipping food principally to the Northeast.
  • 1919 Riomar developed. The wealthy find paradise.
  • 1925 McKee Jungle Gardens makes Vero an attractive tourist stop. Later funds were spent developing parks to preserve our disappearing beaches for the growing tourism.
  • 1939 105 Farms in Vero Beach; 98 in Winter Beach, 56 in Gifford, and 44 in Fellsmere). Farmers also recognized the beauty of the lands (illustrated in Highwaymen and Sean Sexton’s paintings).
  • 1980s Rapid development, loss of green space–35 foot building height limits maintained by insightful county leaders slowed urbanization compared to counties north and south.
  • 1992 First bond referendum for $26 million to purchase conservation lands enacted by alarmed citizens-Matching state funds purchased over $56 million worth of environmental lands.
  • 2004 Second bond referendum for $50 million includes agricultural and historical lands.

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