published: Sunday, October 27, 2013
BOCC gives support to buffer for Range
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING -- Highlands County commissioners gave their blessing Tuesday night to a program designed to provide a buffer around the Avon Park Bombing Range using a system of conservation land easements.
Also participating in the grants collaboration are the Central Florida Regional Planning Council and the Range. The idea is to acquire conservation easements around the sprawling 106,000-acre military facility, which straddles the Highlands and Polk county line northeast of Avon Park.
Dr. Hillary Swaine of the Archbold Biological Station made the presentation, saying the group was looking to leverage up to $500,000 from the $1.1 million currently in Highlands County's conservation trust fund.
"We want to use that money for matching and for leverage," Swaine told commissioners.
The money is accrued through fees assessed from mandated environmental permits.
"It adds up," she said.
Some of the programs being considered are the military's Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program as well as defense infrastructure grants through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Environmental Protection.
Swaine lobbied commissioners for the program, telling them the money had been set aside for just such a purpose and that "there is no match like local match."
"Local match really shows commitment. It really shows the public is interested and there is support from the community," she said. "When you are competing with other counties, this helps Highlands County look really good."
Also pitching the program was Air Force Range Commander Lt. Col. Paul Neidhart.
"Military base buffering is what's important to us," he said. "The fewer people we have close to the big, giant noisemaker we have out there, the fewer complaints we get, and you get as well."
Neidhart pointed to aircraft and artillery activity as the major noise generators, something that apparently does not bother cattle that are run near the Range. When asked how the cows in the area deal with the artillery, bombing and loud aircraft, Commissioner Ron Handley remarked "The cattle have been next to the Bombing Range forever and it does not affect them in any way."
"The great part about it is the government does not own anything," Neidhart assured the commission. "The nature conservancy is our right hand. They go out and monitor the easement. The government is just here to match the money."
That was disputed by several citizens, who charged that the easements, while providing cash to current landowners, also stipulate that upon the death of the property owners the government would assume ownership of the land.
Commissioner Don Elwell pointed out that what was being asked was that commissioners enter into a collaboration and that any specific grants would have to come back up before commissioners before they could move forward.
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