The Sierra Club backed local referendum in Polk County to restart funding for the environmental lands funding was decisively approved Tuesday by voters.
The victory, by a 58 percent to 41 percent majority, occurred despite opposition by the Polk County Republican Party, which prevailed in statewide races.
The referendum, which went to the ballot on a 3-2 County Commission vote, will allow the purchase of additional lands to fill gaps that were not addressed from funding voters approved in 1994 to establish the Polk County Environmental Lands program.
The margin was decisive, unlike the 51-49 percent margin in 1994.
The win occurred despite a recommendation by the Polk County Republican Party to ask party members, whose numbers have surged in recent years, to vote against the referendum.
However, the grassroots effort launched by a group called Polk Forever, whose members included Ancient Islands Sierra Group activists, heard from residents concerned about the destruction of native habitat to make way for the development of sprawling subdivisions in a county whose population is projected to increase to 1 million residents in the next 20 years.
Now that the referendum has passed, the hard work will begin to attract willing landowners to sign up to participate in the program when funding becomes available beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year.
The effort focused on four key areas: the Green Swamp in northern Polk, which is the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers, the high point of the Floridan Aquifer and a hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors; the Peace River, which connects to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary and is a major wildlife and recreational corridor; the Lake Wales Ridge, which is a network of prehistoric desert islands that is the home of plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet and the Upper Kissimmee River Basin, which is the headwaters of the Everglades and a mosaic of habitats vital for the protection of a number of rare an endangered species.
The program would be open to willing sellers who would either seek to sell their property outright or to sell development rights under a conservation easement that would allow the property to remain in private ownership but restrict future development.
All proposed purchases would be a reviewed by a committee appointed by the County Commission that would submit its recommendation to the commission.
All purchases will require County Commission approval.
Polk was one of five Florida counties with environmental land referendums on the ballot Tuesday .
Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River and Nassau counties were also deciding on this issue.
Preliminary results in those counties Tuesday evening showed those measures passing by comfortable margins