Florida’s land conservation law is celebrating its 30th anniversary, but challenges remain

The memory is as clear as if it had just happened: Driving home with my wife from visiting relatives in the spring of 1984, we passed what had once been a lush Florida orange grove, which now looked like something out of a dystopian novel that emerged from the 1981 and 1983 freeze.

The ghostly remains of dead trees stretched into the distance and the scent of orange blossoms that had permeated the air every year was now missing.

“These will all be houses one day, and I’m going to hate that,” I said to my wife as we surveyed just a few of the 120,000 acres of groves that were killed during that epic Christmas freeze. “I wonder if we can pay property owners not to develop their land.”

That was one of five major freezes to hit Florida that decade, destroying groves wave after wave. The people moving to Florida also continued to come in waves, turning millions more acres of land that makes up some of the most productive agricultural areas in the world into subdivisions.

But thirty years ago this spring, Florida launched a lifeline for farmers, ranchers and foresters who wanted to preserve their land in the form of conservation easements.

As an eighth-generation Floridian, I was a freshman state legislator who took on the challenge of bringing the landmark law to fruition and had no idea that task would shape the rest of my life both professionally and personally. Still, I can’t imagine what Florida would be like today without the more than a million acres that have since been protected by paying landowners not to develop their land.

Government Lawton Chiles signed the law on a clear May day in 1994 on a Polk County ranch, a rare swallowtail kite flying behind him as he put pen to paper. A year later, when the Legislature reauthorized the state’s Preservation 2000 land acquisition program, the easements were expanded statewide.

Although Florida’s land use and zoning laws protect land from development, they are temporary measures that may change as the state’s population continues to grow. With that in mind, Florida has implemented two programs to protect land from development forever: it can purchase the land outright or obtain an easement from the landowner.

The easements allow the landowner to sell his development rights to the state after thoroughly documenting the agricultural, environmental or biodiversity value of the land. The easements last forever, meaning that even after the landowner dies and leaves the land to heirs, the protection continues.

Since then, easements have become the most cost-effective way to keep the land open and wild. The state could try to buy all the land it wants to keep; Millions of dollars worth of land are purchased annually, but to be effective it would require tens of billions of dollars more. Easements cost only a fraction and keep the responsibility and costs of managing the land with the owners.

Florida already spends more than $230 million a year on land management, and with every acre it owns, those expenses will increase.

The concept of easements was a far-fetched idea in the early 1990s, but in recent decades Florida law has become a national model for keeping remaining open spaces undeveloped, preserving private property rights so that burdensome development regulations do not devalue the land, and offering financially struggling landowners an alternative to selling to developers.

About 800 to 1,100 people move to Florida every day, creating intense competition for land between three essential needs: housing, food and increasing energy production as more large-scale solar installations are built across the state.

The shared social benefits of conserving Florida’s farmland—food security, aquifer recharge, and wildlife habitat—may also explain why Florida’s conservation efforts have succeeded in bridging a political divide that many saw three decades ago. had not thought possible. Florida’s environmentalists and landowners may have their political differences, but they have found common ground in protecting what little open space Florida has left.

But despite the proven success of the concept, the law still lacks a dedicated funding source to keep pace with rising land values. Easements are funded primarily through appropriations from the state budget (when the Legislature and Governor can agree). Right now, the easement program needs predictable, stable and committed funding as Florida faces waves of aging ranchers and farmers passing land to their children or facing pressure to sell their land to get through their retirement years.

By some estimates, Florida will lose more than 2 million acres of open land to development, while the state will add another 12 million residents by 2070. a report from the University of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida. Meanwhile, dozens of property owners eager to sell their development rights for easements are waiting for financing to become available.

With each year of delay, the cost of acquiring development rights to taxpayers increases and valuable opportunities disappear. For example, since the passage of the Green Swamp Land Authority, land values ​​have quadrupled over the past thirty years, coinciding with Florida’s population increase from 12.9 million in the 1990s to 22.9 million in 2024. That’s three decades of missed opportunity .

While Governor Ron DeSantis’ As the government has revived a focus on land conservation and allocated millions of dollars to protect working areas and wildlife corridors, we cannot rely solely on the discretionary decisions of politicians to fund future conservation programs from time to time.

To ensure the protection of Florida’s remaining undeveloped acres, lawmakers must establish a substantial and sustainable funding source for land conservation to keep pace with the rising cost of land in Florida, which has quadrupled over the past thirty years as funding reaches $300 million. dollars per year.

Unless we commit to securing a reliable source of funding for the continued conservation of Florida’s remaining undeveloped land, the scenic vistas of the wide-open spaces that define our state will fade into memory.

Just as younger generations miss the nostalgic scent of orange blossoms, future generations may never experience the natural beauty we preserve today.


Land agent for the past 30 years Dean Saunders has enabled conservation acquisitions and easements that protect more than 275,000 acres in Florida. Before his real estate career, he served one term in the Florida Legislature, during which he introduced Land Conservation Easement legislation. Saunders is director of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate, a full-service land and commercial real estate brokerage representing buyers, sellers, investors, institutions and landowners since 1996.

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