Florida Buyout of Sugar Property Is Controversial … and Expensive

Published March 1, 2009

The South Florida Water Management District has narrowly approved a controversial $1.34 billion buyout of lands in the Everglades owned by the U.S. Sugar Corporation.

It will be the most expensive conservation land purchase in state history, aimed at restoring natural water flow to the Everglades.

Crist Sees Historic Opportunity

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) brokered the deal with U.S. Sugar nearly a year ago and has staunchly supported the project in the face of economic woes and growing opposition from state lawmakers and rival growers. The water management district’s board members, all but one of whom were appointed by Crist, approved the deal by a vote of 4 to 3, with one abstention.

Critical to the board’s approval of the plan was the last-minute inclusion of an escape clause allowing the state to back out before the September 25 closing date if state tax revenues plummet or the board fails to secure bond funding for the purchase.

‘Ailing Everglades’

Supporters view the purchase of the U.S. Sugar lands as the best available way to restore the health of the Everglades.

“The U.S. Sugar Corp. land acquisition is the most cost-effective, comprehensive option currently available to Florida taxpayers to quickly advance Everglades restoration, provide significant positive returns to the environment, and adequately manage the region’s pressing water demands,” said Richard Gibbs, senior director of communications for the Everglades Foundation.

“Both restoration of the Everglades and clean up of Lake Okeechobee provide important goals,” Gibbs explained. “The lake has been polluted by decades from nutrient-enriched runoff from the Everglades Agricultural Area sugar fields and from north of Lake Okeechobee, leaving a legacy of tens of thousands of tons of polluted sediments in the lake.

“The Everglades restoration process is already substantially delayed, the ailing Everglades ecosystem would continue to rapidly decline, and Florida taxpayers would pay a heftier price” in the long run without the purchase, Gibbs added.

Price Tag Concerns

With the state already struggling to cope with a $5.8 billion budget deficit, even some staunch Everglades supporters nevertheless expressed concerns about the purchase.

“When push comes to shove, I’m not sure we can afford this deal,” Shannon Estenoz, a member of the board of the South Florida Water Management District and a former staffer with the World Wildlife Fund, said after the vote, according to the Miami Herald. Nevertheless, Estenoz voted for the purchase.

The New York Times quoted Michael Collins, the board’s most vocal critic of the purchase, as saying the cost would kill other necessary Everglades restoration projects. The story also reported him as arguing most of the purchased land is unnecessary for Everglades restoration. He said the state would achieve better results focusing on feeder streams and rivers north of the Everglades, where most of the pollution comes from.

State Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) released a press statement saying he has “grave concerns with the concept of an unelected board spending over $1 billion of taxpayer funds on land at a time when I’m having to tell social service, health care, and education providers that we’re making major cuts that will affect our most vulnerable citizens.”

Legislative opposition to the purchase was bipartisan. “I think it is in everybody’s best interest to punt,” state Rep. Luis Garcia (D-Miami Beach) told the Miami Herald for a December 11 story.

More Opposition

“We are troubled by the lack of transparency in this secretive deal, which will cost jobs and cause future tax increases,” said Bob Sanchez, director of public policy at the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute. “While we support the goal of improving the conditions at Everglades National Park and protecting the aquifer that millions of South Florida residents depend on, we think the actions that are aimed at doing that should be taken in a more transparent way.

“We have concerns about the substance of this deal, but we have even greater concerns about the process,” Sanchez added. “The citizens of Florida deserve a better and more transparent process regarding such an important and expensive purchase. The best way to ensure that Florida citizens receive a fair deal is to facilitate an open and accountable process.”

Penny Rodriguez ([email protected]) writes from Parrish, Florida.