ATLANTA -- Palm Beach County, Fla., commissioners last week approved the placing of $140 million of general obligation bonds for land preservation before voters on March 14.

Proceeds from the borrowing program would be used to obtain deed restrictions forbidding development of 13,500 acres of active farmland in the county's southwestern corner for at least 20 years, Palm Beach debt manager John Long said yesterday.

The county estimates that the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Program would require $135 million -- or $10,000 an acre -- to fund the purchase of deed restrictions from property owners, Long said. The remaining $5 million would be needed to cover appraisal fees.

"The $140 million represents the amount we estimate will fund the entire project," said Long. "This amount could change if we find other funding sources."

One alternative financing source might be grant money from the state, said Long. But it would take an act of the legislature to snare these funds, and in any event they would probably not exceed $10 million, he said.

Long said the county's commission voted 6 to 1 on Nov. 22 to place the bond referendum on the ballot, with commissioner Karen Marcus casting the lone vote against the measure.

The commissioners' decision to ask voters for the $140 million needed to fund the land preservation program came despite a recent county-commissioned poll that suggested there is limited support for that amount of borrowing.

According to a survey of 403 adults conducted two weeks ago, 12% said they would support the full amount, while 56% would back $50 million.

Long said that "public discussion" of the bond issue would probably increase voter support. The county has allocated $100,000 to provide voters with information about the measure, he said.

Commissioners could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Long said that if the referendum is successful, the county would probably sell an initial offering of between $25 million and $50 million within 12 months. He said the issuance schedule would depend on the pace of negotiation with farmers from whom land is being purchased.

About $12.5 million in annual debt service would be needed to fund a $140 million borrowing, probably necessitating a property tax increase of about 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, Long said.

If approved, the bond authorization would be the largest in county history. Long noted that the last bond referendum approval was in March 1991, when county voters endorsed $100 million of GOs for the preservation of environmentally sensitive lands.

The county plans to sell the second installment of this debt next week in a $50 million offering, which will be underwritten by a syndicate led by Smith Barney Inc., Long said. Palm Beach County sold an initial $50 million debt issue for the project in October 1991.

As of Sept. 30, the end of the 1994 fiscal year, the county had $108.1 million of general obligation debt outstanding. The GOs are rated double-A by Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp.

Long said the county does not have a fallback plan to fund preservation of the farmlands if the bond proposal is defeated by voters.

He said that without deed restrictions in place for the agricultural reserve, Palm Beach County will move forward with a comprehensive development plan that could by 2000 allow development of up to two homes per acre in the reserve.

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