Florida Senate entrance

In a recent interview, Dean Saunders sat down with the Land Journal to discuss how he established the basis for Florida's conservation easements back in the 1990's.

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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.

Dean began the interview by stating that his idea of the state government purchasing conservation easements first came to his mind while he was on the staff of Florida Senator Lawton Chiles as he ran for State Governor in 1990. "It's also the same year that the Preservation 2000 legislation is on the ballot, that's where the state of Florida is going to spend 300 million dollars a year to buy environmentally sensitive land."

After Chiles had won the Gubernatorial race, Saunders said that he thought to himself "Here's my platform. Here's my opportunity to sell this idea of buying development rights to the governor.'" He attempted to convince the heads of the state departments that they "didn't need to take this 300 million dollars and buy land and take it off the tax rolls and have to manage it. Why don't we try to use conservation easements or purchase a development rights program where we buy the development rights?"

Saunders explained that his idea gained little traction until 1992 when Dean was elected to the Florida legislature. He decided to do a trial run of a conservation easement program in the Green Swamp area in Polk and Lake counties.

Saunders stated that "the Green Swamp area of critical state concern was just the perfect place to try it. It was already defined in state statute, it was already created in 1974 as an area of critical state concern. The whole idea was to reduce and restrict development in those areas."

Saunders got to work crafting legislation that would "create an authority that would be appointed. The governor would have three appointees to it, and the county commissions in Polk County and Lake County would each get to appoint three members. The idea was to use ten million dollars a year for three years. Let's see how this works, and see if there's interest in it." 

But Saunders then went on to describe some of the difficulties and obstacles that he faced as he attempted to persuade both government personnel and landowners of the benefits and convenience of conservation easements. "It wasn't easy to get passed," he explained, "and when I was lobbying it, the government people ... kind of looked at me like I was a fascist. And the landowners... they looked at me kind of like I was a communist."

Despite these setbacks, Saunders said that the reason that his legislation passed and that the conservation easement program was ultimately successful was because "it was where private property rights and conservation conveniently came together. And it as honoring and recognizing that landowners had given up something, and they ought to get paid for it." 

These important first steps taken by Dean Saunders led the way and set the precedent for the flourishing conservation easement programs that currently operate throughout the state.

To see the full interview with Dean, watch the video below. For more articles about Conservation, click here.


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