Answers indicate ‘lack of awareness’ regarding the subject, survey team member tells County Commission
Over the past year, especially, Sarasota County Commission Chair Alan Maio has taken numerous opportunities to point out that approximately one-third of the land in the county has been preserved from development, primarily through conservation easements.
Maio often has stressed that fact in the wake of public hearings when he and his colleagues have approved new residential developments, especially on property in the more rural areas of the county.
In early June, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), made a presentation to the board members, noting that more than 123,000 acres are protected.
In May, about a month before Rissler stepped to the podium in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota, the board members discussed new questions they wanted included on the county’s 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey. Maio asked that the University of South Florida (USF) team that handles the survey, in conjunction with a Tampa consulting firm, include a question about the amount of preserved county property.
As it turned out, of the 1,250 survey participants who provided an answer, the USF team reported in its Executive Summary, “79% offered a response that was incorrect.” Only 21% “were within range of noting that approximately one-third of County land is preserved,” the summary added.
Joshua Scacco, a USF professor and a member of the team, stressed to the commissioners during the Sept. 28 survey results presentation that the item was “a pure knowledge question.”
The 21% who “were within range of the correct answer” represented about 100 residents, he said.
Summing up the findings, Scacco noted that the respondents showed that “a lack of awareness and knowledge exists on this subject.”
During comments following the USF presentation, Maio asked for board consensus to include the question on the 2022 Citizen Opinion Survey, too. No one voiced opposition to the proposal.
“There’s 185 square miles of Sarasota County,” Maio pointed out. Of that, he continued, 34% has been conserved by the county or other jurisdictions. “That’s almost 120,000 acres that we’ve preserved, and we add to it every year.” He repeated the last portion of the statement, stressing, “Every year.”
“We need to keep [people] informed about that,” he said.
Every person who owns property in the county pays a special tax of 0.25 mills per year — as voted on by citizens — to enable the commission to continue purchasing property for preservation and for parkland, Maio noted.
A county webpage explains that, in 1999, voters first approved the ad valorem tax, which was to be collected through 2019, “for the acquisition, protection and management of environmentally sensitive lands.”
Then, in 2005, voters approved a second referendum, the webpage says. That extended the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program through 2029 “and expanded the county’s land protection efforts to include the acquisition and management of neighborhood parkland.”
During his Sept. 28 comments, Maio further noted that county staff is working to determine the amount of land that will be preserved as open space within new developments.
In conjunction with his remarks, Maio also reprised an exchange he began with Commissioner Nancy Detert years ago regarding how many county residents watch the commission meetings, which are televised on local access channels and which also are live-streamed through the county website and via the county’s YouTube channel.
“I think there’s 200,000 people that listen to us,” he joked to Detert. “You think there’s 20, including my wife.”
Then Detert told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that she would like for the 2022 Citizen Opinion Survey to include a question asking whether respondents watch the meetings. “We could answer this once and for all,” she added with a laugh.
“I openly, publicly, personally accept Commissioner Detert’s challenge,” Maio responded.
Lewis indicated that he would seek direction on such policy-related questions next year, as it gets closer to the time for conducting the 2022 survey.