Since 2001, the State of Florida has purchased more than 869,477 acres of land using approximately $3.2 billion. These purchases were all voluntary transfers by willing sellers. This has been made possible through a program called Florida Forever, the goal of which is to enhance and preserve the state’s natural resources, wildlife habitat, and public recreation by purchasing land outright, mostly, and also using alternatives such as conservation easements.
How does it work? There is of course a complex statutory web starting with the Florida Forever Act, but here are the distilled basics:
It is administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ("FDEP"). Desirable lands are selected and put into a priority list by an Acquisition and Restoration Council comprised of other state agency representatives and governor appointees. The land picks are based on how well the potential purchase accomplishes goals such as the ones mentioned above. The Governor and cabinet approve of the list, acting as Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund – this is the entity that the State of Florida uses to purchase land.
But how does the State of Florida pay for these acquisitions? Essentially, it issues bonds and repays them with documentary stamp tax revenue from real estate sales. Fla. Stat. 215.618.
More specifically, the FDEP requests the Division of Bond Finance to issue what are called Florida Forever Bonds to investors. This raises the up front money needed to pay landowners. The proceeds from these bonds are put into the Florida Forever Trust Fund, which the FDEP uses to buy public land outright, or implement alternatives such as conservation easements.
The State of Florida then pays investors back over time using the proceeds from documentary stamp taxes on real estate sales throughout the state. Pursuant to Article X, Section 28 of the Florida Constitution, 33% of state documentary stamp taxes are dedicated to a Land Acquisition Trust Fund that secures the Florida Forever Bonds. The idea is that a portion of documentary stamp taxes on real estate throughout Florida is dedicated towards conservation to partially compensate for the negative impact of development on the environment.
So, the state of Florida pays the debt owed as issuer of these bonds over time using proceeds from documentary stamp taxes derived from real estate sales. This concept has been used for roughly 50 years in Florida but the 33% requirement was voted into the Florida Constitution back in 2014 by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
Whether this amount is adequate or the funds are actually used appropriately is debated and litigated.
Obviously, environmentalists and outdoorsmen prefer as much money to be spent on public land acquisition and conservation as possible. In the early years Florida Forever was funded at $300 million annually by selling these bonds. In 2021, it was funded with $100 million. Other years in between have been lower. The amount changes based on the budget that the legislature passes each year, and of course the legislature can also change the substantive law affecting how the program functions.
We are in the middle of the 2022 legislative session now, and there are proposed bills and a budget that will affect the Florida Forever program.
Click here to read about 2022 bills relating to the Florida Forever program and Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
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