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Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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Editorial: Everglades land purchase a no-brainer, except in Tallahassee

The state cut a deal with U.S. Sugar seven years ago to pay a fair-market price for 46,800 acres south of Lake Okeechobee that could be used to filter polluted water before it flows to the Everglades.

It was a good deal then, and it’s a good deal today.

Yet state lawmakers may not go through with it, even after 75 percent of the state’s voters approved the environmental lands amendment (Amendment 1) last November that could provide a definite funding source for the purchase. Moreover, a recent Senate-sponsored University of Florida study on how to move more fresh water into the Everglades suggests the land’s purchase would be a good option to consider.

Lawmakers should stop playing games with Everglades restoration funding and respect the will of the voters by approving the land’s purchase before adjourning this legislative session. And Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned for a second term on his concern for protecting Florida’s natural beauty, should push the Senate and House to do the right thing and buy the land.

The purchase option expires Oct. 12. The state will never get a better deal. As Charles Lee, advocacy director of Audubon Florida tells us, “The issue here is a simple one: Don’t walk away from a sure thing.”

Former Gov. Charlie Crist cut the deal with U.S. Sugar to buy the acreage, part of which was to be used as a reservoir to store tainted water rather than divert it into rivers and estuaries.

U.S. Sugar supported the deal then, when the economy was reeling from the recession. Now it doesn’t, and it appears its generous donations to powerful figures in Tallahassee has put the deal in jeopardy as the deadline nears. If lawmakers let the option lapse, the land reverts to U.S. Sugar, which has proposed building a large housing and retail development in the area someday down the road.

The company’s considerable influence in Tallahassee is stoked by more than $2 million in donations to Republican candidates last year and by the secretive hunting trips it hosted in Texas for Scott, and for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, among others. The company gave generously to Scott’s re-election campaign.

Opponents of purchasing the land, such as Putnam, who has opposed it from the start, say it doesn’t represent the best use of Everglades restoration expenditures.

They say money should be spent on projects north of Lake Okeechobee to clean the water before it reaches the lake. During heavy rains, overflow from the lake water, tainted with phosphorus and nitrogen, is diverted into rivers flowing east and west of the lake and causes significant environmental damage.

But that argument is a red herring. The question at hand is whether to exercise an option to purchase land for a fair market value, estimated today at $350 million. The annual proceeds from Amendment 1 are expected to be about $750 million over the next 20 years. The state could bond the purchase for $35 million a year and have over $700 million a year for other projects, including those north of the lake that lawmakers now find so appealing.

Even if the reservoir project isn’t immediately undertaken, the land should be purchased now because it’s doubtful the state could get a better deal in the coming years, especially if U.S. Sugar is allowed to develop its land in the area.

Purchasing this land is exactly the kind of deal the voters had in mind when approving Amendment 1. Lawmakers who say otherwise are perpetuating a sham on the public.

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