Photo of oranges growing in a Florida citrus grove

In a recent interview, Dean Saunders discussed how agricultural events in the 1980s inspired him to create legislation that evolved into Florida's conservation easement programs.

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Since 1985, Dean has specialized in Florida land and conservation easements. He served in the US Senate as Agricultural Liaison, Special Assistant, and Director of External Affairs to US Senator Lawton Chiles, then Governor Chiles (D-FL). From 1992 to 1996 he served in the Florida House of Representatives. Combining a passion to support landowner property rights while also conserving natural land in Florida, Dean proposed and became one of three main sponsors of Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act. This legislation later evolved into what is now referred to as conservation easements. The concept of state-owned conservation easements was truly revolutionary 25 years ago, but the success of this idea is recognized today as a tremendous positive impact on our state.

When asked whether he recalled the first time he thought of the idea that developed into conservation easements, Saunders said "I remember distinctly where I was, the conversation I was having. This was in the mid eighties, 1984 or 1985. It was after several of the freezes of the eighties."

The "freezes" that Saunders refers to are a series of devastating freezes that wrecked the agricultural sector of Florida throughout the 1980's. Speaking of them, Saunders stated that "we had five major freezes throughout the decade of the eighties that decimated the Florida Citrus industry. It changed the real estate landscape in Florida. The industry shifted from Lake County and some of the northern parts of the citrus-growing region towards southern and southwest, even into the Indian River district. The industry moved South after the freezes."

"I can remember driving to my parent's house in Clermont and it looked like we were in a dystopian movie as we were driving across the landscape of what once was just beautiful, luscious rolling hills of orange groves and and lakes. And it's now mangled, gnarly, dead orange trees occupying thousands upon thousands of acres."

Saunders continued, "I remember saying to my wife 'it's a shame this will all be houses one day. I hate to see that, I wonder if there's some way we could protect it so that it wouldn't be developed'. I wonder if we could pay landowners not to develop their land?'" 

Saunders went on to describe how during his work with the Florida Farm Bureau, he came across a legal term: "transfer of development rights." This was a way that the government justified denying development rights on some properties by granting those rights to other properties of the landowner. Saunders believed that the government was using this term in a way that was detrimental to landowners, placing restrictions without offering tangible compensation and thus lowering the value of their property. "Just the thought of stripping that value without some compensation seems to be unfair," Saunders said.

Saunders fought alongside the Florida Farm Bureau to resist the legal concept of "transfer of development rights." Saunders came to believe that a more preferable and fair system for development rights compensation was possible. Rather than "transfer of development rights," Saunders believed that the government should instead be using "purchase of development rights."

This was the idea that would later inspire Saunders to create legislation that later evolved into conservation easements programs programs in Florida. 

To see the interview in full, watch the video below. For more articles on Conservation, click here.


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