The History of Conservation Easements in Florida

October 02, 2020   |   Conservation Easements

In this interview, Dean Saunders discusses his role in the crucial process of introducing conservation easements to the Florida legislature.

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.

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 the 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.

Referring to the conception of the idea of Florida’s conservation easements, Saunders stated: "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 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 would evolve into conservation easements programs within Florida.

Dean’s idea of the state government purchasing conservation easements first fabricated as he was on staff for 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 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 very little traction. That was 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. "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." 

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 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 was 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 Sunshine State.

Free e-book

Conservation Easement Primer

Written by Dean Saunders, ALC, CCIM
This book is written to give insight and answers to your questions about Florida conservation easements and other landowner rights. 
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About Dean Saunders, ALC, CCIM

As an Accredited Land Consultant (ALC) and a member of the Florida Legislature from 1992 to 1996, Dean spearheaded the action to establish the Green Swamp Land Authority. As a result of his efforts, the very first Florida state agency was created to purchase development rights from landowners. His work was instrumental in the successful passing of the law requiring Florida state agencies to purchase a specific number of conservation easements each and every year. Selling your land as a Florida conservation easement is recommended to real estate clients when the property has the qualified features, meets guidelines, and the landowner desires a way to keep the property from major development for generations to come.

Dean Saunders
Throughout his career, Dean has carried a deep passion for Florida land and conservation easements. During his time in the US Senate as Agricultural Liaison, Special Assistant, and Director of External Affairs, he fought for private property rights in tandem with the conservation of the Flor...