More conversation is needed on finding additional funds to support Palm Beach County’s Natural Areas Program.
The Palm Beach Post did a wonderful and informative article, “County weighs price of conserving nature” (Jan. 8), that summarized how Palm Beach County was scheduled to run out of funding in 2019 for maintaining over 30,000 acres (34 sites) of environmentally sensitive lands set aside for preservation. According to The Post article, the county spends about $6 million a year to maintain the program; but, sources of money are drying up. County voters approved the purchase of these sites during the 1990s. Just as any other property owner, we are required to keep up the necessary maintenance of these properties by law.
One possible source of funding mentioned in the article was using local tourism tax revenue. However, the question arose as to how we could take money away from tourism marketing and use it for land maintenance. A Jan. 18 letter to the editor addressed the return on marketing concern, and asked the question, do our environmentally sensitive lands actually attract tourists. A small neighborhood survey quickly showed that county families and tourists have an overwhelming support for these sites that provide walking, jogging, bicycling, horseback riding, kayaking and canoeing adventures.
Now a more formal survey has been conducted by Elizabeth Pienaar of the University of Florida. In her study, “Economic Valuation of the Ecosystem Services (Natural Benefits of Palm Beach County’s Natural Areas Managed by the Department of Environmental Resources Management), respondents were further asked if they would support a payment included within our annual property tax bill or an increase in monthly utility fees. A majority of survey respondents (81.3 percent) positively acknowledged they valued maintaining the Natural Areas Program. Most respondents (55.3 percent) preferred an increase in property tax, while 33 percent of the respondents preferred increases in utility fees. The study suggested that $12 to $15 per household would be needed to maintain the program. And the study concluded that there appears to be enough justification to support a referendum to the larger voting population of Palm Beach County.
Again, by law we must find the funding to continue the Natural Areas program. We may need to examine a combination of the above-mentioned revenue sources. However, to discontinue maintenance of these areas would set back the strides we have made towards exotic vegetation management, prescribed burns for fire control, and much needed hydrological restoration for wetland habitats.
MARION HEDGEPETH, WEST PALM BEACH
Editor’s note: Hedgepeth is a member of the Palm Beach County Natural Areas Management Advisory Committee.