The public has an opportunity Thursday to share its thoughts on the possible sale of dozens of parcels of state-owned conservation lands, including 10 sites on the Cayo Costa and North Captiva islands.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public meeting on the State Conservation Land Assessment from 6-8 p.m. in Suite 364 at the Joseph P. D'Alessandro Building in Fort Myers. It will consist of a presentation, question-and-answer period and public comment.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature allocated $20 million for Florida Forever, the state's conservation and recreation lands acquisition program. It approved spending up to an additional $50 million, funded by the sale of state-owned lands no longer needed for conservation purposes.
A photo taken last Thursday of a bald eagle in the nest on one of the parcels proposed for sale. A pair resides in the nest, according to Margi Nanney, who has owned a cabin on Cayo Costa since the late 1970s.
In turn, the DEP organized the land assessment. Nearly 170 parcels, totaling 5,200 acres, were scored based on conservation value. A list of lower value sites is now being examined for potential sales.
As of Tuesday, 81 parcels - 3,400 acres - remained on the chopping block.
The meeting in Fort Myers is one of four planned throughout Florida.
"The purpose is to bring this information across the state," DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said.
"We also want to get public comment, that's very important to us," he added.
Among the sites still on the list are eight parcels on the south end of Cayo Costa and two on the south end of North Captiva Island. The list previously had nearly two dozen sites between the two islands.
"There were a couple of parcels that were submerged land, so we cut them for that reason," Gillespie said, adding that other ones featured the type of habitats required by some "imperiled species."
Margi Nanney, who has owned a cabin on Cayo Costa since the late 1970s and is president of the Friends of Cayo Costa, contends that the remaining parcels should be removed from the list.
"They're on very fragile barrier island ecosystems," she said, speaking as a land owner and resident. "They protect Pine Island Sound and, certainly, Pine Island and the mainland."
With more than 30 years of experience and hundred of hours logged in helping to take care of the island, Nanney explained that there are endangered plants on the last parcels, even a bald eagle nest.
"Any more human impact to any of those systems can be devastating," she said.
There are about a dozen private homes on Cayo Costa, and neither island has services.
"This is one of the largest undisturbed barrier islands in the U.S.," Nanney said.
Any incident, like a storm or a fire, can be difficult to respond to.
"You want to minimize those impacts any time you can," she said. "This is one of the reasons Lee County designated it in their comprehensive plan as conservation land."
"The overwhelming consensus from everyone has been to limit development on the barrier island," Nanney added.
On Sept. 10, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to submit a letter to the DEP opposing the plan to surplus state lands located on North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands.
The county advised that "the parcels should stay in conservation status in order to minimize future risk exposure and prevent potential impacts to the remaining adjacent state lands," like Pine Island Sound.
Nanney added that the lands were property vetted and designated for conservation the first time.
"The goal of the unit management plan for Cayo Costa and Lee County is to complete the project," she said, noting that means continuing to buy property on the islands to be protected for conservation.
"We really just worked hard to have these purchased," Nanney said of all of the state-owned parcels.
The presentation at Thursday's meeting will cover the process of the assessment, review the list of remaining parcels, go over the science involved and introduce those involved with the project.
During public input, each speaker will have three minutes to talk.
"We want everybody to have an opportunity to give their comments," Gillespie said.
Twenty-one people signed in at the first public meeting in Pensacola, and eight people spoke.
"We had some people who, obviously - there's some sites they don't want to see on the list," he said, adding that there were also questions about the process and how the DEP got to where it is now.
"I suspect we'll have a higher attendance in Fort Myers given the high interest in Cayo Costa State Park," Gillespie said.
As many as a dozen conservation organizations and agencies are expected to attend Thursday.
"They'll be a lot of people there," Nanney said. "We're in this for the long haul."
Gillespie pointed out that the money raised from any sales will help buy "more gems" in Florida.
"That's the goal," he said.
Nanney argued that the parcels on Cayo Costa and North Captiva that remain on the list are "25,000 times" more valuable than the "little bit of money" that could be gained from selling them.
"I just think that the state should have never put these parcels on the list to begin with," she said.
The final two public meetings will be held next week in Viera and Orlando.
The DEP expects to collect pubic comment from all of the meetings before making any decisions.
"We'll see if there's anything that drives us to look at a specific site," Gillespie said.
Parcels that are eventually recommended for sale will be offered to other state managing agencies, universities and local governments first, which will have an option to lease.
The properties could be available in October or November.
If there is no interest, the land is then put up for bid. Secured bids go before Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, which must determine that the land is no longer needed for conservation and approve the sale.
The Joseph P. D'Alessandro Building is at 2295 Victoria Ave.
For more information, visit: www.dep.state.fl.us/lands/assessment/default.htm.