Second of two parts.
County staffers are laying claim to vast amounts of cash for a Cadillac plan for improvements to conservation properties — and county commissioners have let them do it.
The proposals go far beyond the scope of what voters approved and backers envisioned.
Sunday's column criticized a suggestion by County Commissioner Leslie Campione to sell some conservation property bought with public money after residents overwhelmingly voted to authorize the $36 million preservation plan.
The county purchased more than a dozen properties between three and four years ago, but the public still hasn't been allowed to set foot on a single acre because "improvements" haven't been made.
Campione keeps declaring that the county can't "afford" to keep all the lands and do what is necessary to open them to the public. However, nearly $2.4 million that
be used for improvements has been sitting in a bank account drawing interest since 2005.
The main thing
can't afford is more thoughtless sound bites about what it can't afford. Unfortunately, Campione is listening to staffers instead of thinking independently.
The county's land-management director said four properties are in the "design stage" to be opened. They are the adjacent Ellis and Akron Meadows properties near Paisley that are about 400 acres together; Lake May, a 136-acre gem just east of
; and what's called "The Pasture," 800 acres in south Lake's high-recharge area along Lake Erie Road in the Green Swamp.
The county plans to spend $1.6 million getting these lands open — about $400,000 each on the Ellis and Lake May properties and $800,000 on The Pasture.
"It's so that you have the amenities that people seem to want," said David Hansen, the county's land manager.
The county has a $55,000 contract with a
design firm that is deciding where to place restrooms, parking, trails, picnic pavilions and canoe-launch sites on the one particular site Campione suggested selling — the 400-acres Ellis and Akron Meadows chunk.
Oh, for crying out loud. Give me a map, a machete and a couple of dump trucks of mulch. I'll have that land open in two weeks.
The county's fancy plans for improving the properties were never the idea of backers of the initiative and are "completely unnecessary," said Ken LaRoe, a local bank president who led the group that worked for voter approval and helped choose the properties.
Commissioners should issue a "stop" order right now. These properties are conservation land. They are not destined for baseball fields, and they shouldn't be expected to earn their keep through cattle leases, as Campione suggested. The point is to hang onto them for their intrinsic value to water resources and wildlife habitat for coming generations, hence the word
The properties were chosen to fulfill the mandate of the voters to "acquire and improve land to protect drinking water sources, preserve natural areas, protect open space from overdevelopment, provide parks and trails and improve water quality."
This was a visionary investment in the future.
Campione said she was "disappointed" that LaRoe and those behind the land-buying program failed to account for the cost of improvements at the properties. She keeps using phrases like "breakdown," "dropped the ball" and "messed up."
None of that ever happened. What did occur is that the forward-thinking folks who pushed this initiative didn't expect the county to pay hundreds of thousands to "designers" to put an X on the map where the
of toilets should be built.
They expected something very basic, along these lines: Buy a recycled plastic table made for handicapped picnickers for $700. Install high-use compost toilets for $2,000 each. Create a 50-foot-square parking lot from permanent recycled rubber mulch for $3,500. And throw in a commercial park bench with a 50-year warranty at a cost of $800. Get volunteers to cut trails.
Total per park? $7,000. Even figuring $20,000 per park, the total cost would be roughly $200,000. That would leave $2 million to spare.
Don't squander money
Volunteers recently cut a trail at a
park. Wouldn't that be a great project for a Boy Scout troop — adopt a park and cut a trail? Already, the Lake May property has a group of volunteers who act as citizen rangers and check on it every week. That's how it ought to be.
Let's consider Hidden Waters Preserve, a 90-acre ravine owned by the Lake County Water Authority.
The agency had a staff member design a trail for the area, and it installed fences on steep parts of it. There's a picnic table near the entrance.
"People can park right off Abrams Road — there's enough space for six or seven cars off the road, so no one gets creamed," said Mike Perry, executive director of the water authority.
Total cost, including signs and erosion repair? Less than $4,500.
Real environmentalists don't sell preservation land. They preserve it. If they can't open it to people immediately, they hold it until they can find the money. They see which properties are being most used, and that's how they decide where "improvements" should go when cash is available.
There is no need to sell these precious properties. But there
an opportunity for Campione or one of her elected colleagues to step into a process gone awry and get it turned onto the right path — before the last of the bond money is squandered on unnecessary frills.