Palm Beach County also looking for upkeep money for Natural Areas

For two decades, sun, wind and rain have beaten down on the 190-foot-long boardwalk at the 772-acre Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area, north of Loxahatchee Groves.

Rob Robbins would love to replace the thing. He’s not sure he’ll be doing that any time soon.

As head of Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management since 2011, Robbins oversees 33 parcels of land known as Natural Areas totaling about 32,000 acres. That’s about 50 square miles; an area that, combined, would be equal in size to the city of West Palm Beach.

The county got the bulk of the money to buy those lands for preservation and passive parks from referendum votes in 1991 ($100 million) and 1999 ($50 million), plus state matches ($82 million), but that money ran out a long time ago.

For now, the county’s not looking to buy any more land, but it is scrambling every year to find the cash for upkeep.

“We’re not out of money,” Robbins said last week. “We could be in three years if we don’t find other ways to supplement it.”

Robbins said ERM’s maintenance fund has gone from $25 million in 2011 to $9.1 million now, as costs have outstripped revenue. And he said he worries the various streams could ebb or dry up, along with grants.

The flow is inconsistent. In 2012 the county got $2.4 million from transferring development rights for some county-owned parcels, mostly in the Ag Reserve. The year before, it got none.

The county has been throwing in $250,000 a year to help pay for maintenance and this year raised that amount to $750,000. And Robbins tries to stretch what he can by apply for matching grants.

All that money helps, he said, “but we’re still going to need to close the gap,”

More money might come from the millions that would be generated if the County Commission goes to voters with a revenue-generating plan next year and voters approve the referendum package.

The commission hasn’t decided whether to ask county voters to raise the sales tax or issue bonds, which likely would entail a property tax increase, but staff says the money is needed for repairs to roads, buildings and bridges. There has also been talk of joining forces with the county school district.

Robbins says money from a bond issue or sales tax increase would pay for repairs and replacement of features such as that Royal Palm Beach Pines boardwalk, and to build at the eight of the 32 areas that still have no facilities.

But it can’t be used to pay for maintenance and upkeep. And that includes the biggest expense: elimination of exotic trees and vegetation, which costs the county $4 million or more a year.

Agreements connected to the purchases require the removal of the exotics, and while no one’s looking over the county’s shoulder, “that’s our mission, to protect the natural lands,” Robbins said.

He said the exotics suck up too much water and crowd out natural vegetation, destroying habitats and leaving local wildlife without their natural food sources.

Robbins is far back in the line for any new referendum revenue anyway. At a workshop Tuesday, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker said the backlog of work to repair and upgrade roads and parks — a need that she says ballooned during the economic downturn — is at $650 million to $750 million.

But there could be another source.

In 2014, three-quarters of Florida voters — including 85 percent of those casting ballots in Palm Beach County — approved Constitutional Amendment 1, which created an environmental trust fund to buy and preserve land.

Amendment 1 is expected to generate some $18 billion for the trust fund over the next two decades by channelling it a third of the state’s real estate documentation stamp fees.

Earlier this month, Palm Beach County commissioners said they plan to ask state legislators to tap into that fund to buy land in the county’s Agricultural Reserve, a farming zone west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. Environmentalists and preservationists have been pressing the county to limit development in the 22,000-acre reserve.

Counties also are arguing that, since 10 percent of publicly owned land in Florida is owned by counties and other local governments, “if there’s money to be applied toward land management, we think a prorated share of that money, about 10 percent, should go to locals,” Robbins said. And, he said, “if that happens, that makes a big deal for our program.”

That path may have to go through the courts. This summer, environmentalists sued the state, arguing that too little of Amendment 1 money is going to buy and preserve sensitive lands. But Robbins said the Legislature could act independently of the court case.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose western Palm Beach County district includes several natural areas, said that if Amendment 1 money is freed up, some of it can go for upkeep. Or, perhaps free up county money that can instead be spent that way.

“That is exactly what those (Amendment 1) moneys are meant for,” McKinlay said at Tuesday’s county workshop.’ “There will be a maintenance cost associated with purchasing those lands, so it is fair to use that revenue for those purposes.”

But Todd Bonlarron, the county’s legislative lobbyist, said Tuesday that legislators have been far from receptive to freeing up Amendment 1 money.

“The appetite for it in Tallahassee has not been there,” Bonlarron said. “Last session we kind of saw that writing on the wall.”

He said Amendment 1 money “could definitely be used for maintenance.” But, he said, “”We’ve got a heavy lift to change some minds.”

Bonlarron said the county has one ace in the hole, on this and many issues: The 2017 Senate President-apparent is State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes parts of northern Palm Beach County — for now.

Negron agreed last week that the Amendment 1 money can be used for maintenance. And, he said, “I’m committed to implementing both the spirit and the letter of Amendment 1. Over the next several years you’ll see a major commitment by the Legislature to purchase and maintain sensitive lands.”

Negron’s district might be moved entirely into the Treasure Coast under redistricting maps now being considered by the Florida Supreme Court. But Negron said he still will push for Palm Beach County when it comes to Amendment 1.

“I was born in West Palm Beach,” Negron said, “and Palm Beach County is dear to my heart.”

Staff Writer Mike Stucka contributed to this story.

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