Voter-approved land conservation measure aims to protect remaining natural habitats

Almost everywhere you look, signs for new developments are popping up in Manatee County, but as homes and businesses go up, natural and wildlife habitats disappear.

"We are losing some of the prime lands to development," said Dick Eckenrod, the president of the Manatee Fish and Game Association. "It's important that we maintain an appropriate balance between developed land and natural lands, the natural habitats."

Eckenrod hopes Manatee County will soon take steps to start preserving land instead of developing it, thanks to a referendum protecting key pieces of land. The measure was passed by 71% of county voters.

Eckenrod called the vote "a milestone for Manatee County."

The referendum gives county commissioners the chance to purchase and preserve land. A board will help identify areas rich in fish and wildlife habitats, along with water supply. Parks will also be created.

"Never before has the Board of County Commissioners had a dedicated source of funding for land conservation and water quality protection," said Eckenrod.

The cost equals about $2.40 a month, or $29 a year, for each household.

"If you don’t have the money you can’t play and now Manatee County has that fund and they can make those offers. That’s what this fund is all about, is to make sure it’s level playing ground not only for nature but for the landowners," said Christine P. Johnson, the President of Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.

She said surrounding counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota already have conservation funds in place.

"30% of the state has conserved while Manatee County is only at 13%, so we have some catching up to do," she said.

Even so, conservationists say it's never too late to start.

"Nature has been losing but with the new fund that’s been established now it’ll have an opportunity to catch up and establish an appropriate balance," said Eckenrod.