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Lagoon’s health rated top priority in survey

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of February 16, 2012)

Early results from the Indian River County Quality of Life Project show clean water and the health of the Indian River Lagoon ecosystem are of upmost importance to county residents.

“The health of the lagoon was rated high or very high in importance as a factor in our quality of life,” says Dr. Graham Cox, one of the formulators of the project and survey.

Respondents rated government action to enhance or protect the lagoon and overall water quality in rivers, lakes and streams as poor or very poor.

Shaped by an advisory board with 24 leaders from government, education, business, agriculture, health care, media and the environmental and development communities, the Quality of Life Project is asking residents their views on the quality of life in Indian River County and developing meaningful indicators to measure progress toward the kind of community people desire.

“Coming up with a vision is the first step,” says Cox, who has a doctorate in environmental economics and has worked extensively on projects of this type. “Are we living in a paradise now? If so, how do we protect that quality of life? What can we do to improve the quality of life and create a more sustainable community?

“We have had 10 meetings over the past several years with advisory committee members. Those led to numerous focus groups of 10 or 20 or 30 people who shared their views about the current quality of life here and what factors most contribute to it.

“We’ve met with neighborhood associations, citrus growers, cattle people, Republican groups, Democratic groups and many others, trying to cover all aspects of county life.”

Those responses enabled Cox and his volunteer colleagues to create their survey.

“Our results so far, which are preliminary, come from responses to an online version of the survey,” Cox says. “We are planning a wider, more scientific and systematic phone survey to gather the widest possible cross-section of public opinion.”

Cox says respondents rate the lagoon as highly important to quality of life because they recognize its geographic and economic centrality.

“You get these talking points about job creation and the economy versus the environment as if the economy is something separate from the environment,” he says. “In fact, the market economy is part of the overall human and natural environment and political leaders need to understand that.”

As reported last week, most members of the Board of County Commissioners say they are unlikely to act to protect the lagoon from fertilizer pollution, one the most serious threats to the ecosystem, in part because such regulation might be harmful to lawn-care businesses.

That perspective is contradicted and Cox’s viewpoint supported by the experience of lawn-care companies in Sarasota and other Florida communities where fertilizer regulation enacted to protect coastal waters has benefited both businesses and the environment, according to recent articles in the Sarasota Harold-Tribune.

Quality of life surveys are not a new idea.

About 1,000 other communities across the U.S. and Canada, as well as others around the world, are doing similar indicator projects to help inform planning and empower smart policy.

“I did this same type of thing for New York State and three other states in the region,” Cox says. “The challenge is to narrow the criterion down to a manageable number. I have 90 pages of suggestions about what contributes to the quality of life here, but you can’t ask people to rate hundreds of factors. You have to narrow it down to 15 or 20 and rate those according to importance and track them.”

Indian River County’s project was initiated by the Pelican Island Audubon Society. Cox says he and his co-workers want all the input they can get.

“We will be glad to meet with any group that wants to weigh in,” he says.

Cox encourages everyone with an interest to complete the online survey, which can be found here:

It takes about five minutes.