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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Florida’s disaster of a land deal

Pinellas state Sen. Jack Latvala perfectly describes the Legislature’s efforts to raise money for conservation by selling surplus land as a “disaster.”

The Legislature’s idea was half-baked from the start, and the Department of Environmental Protection completely botched the effort, which lawmakers should abandon this year.

Instead, the Legislature should begin adequately funding Florida Forever, the program that buys and preserves important natural tracts. It is traditionally funded by a portion of the documentary stamp revenue from real-estate transactions — an appropriate revenue source for a program made necessary by the state’s rapid development.

But lawmakers virtually abandoned Florida Forever during the recession and now refuse to restore its funding even as the economy rebounds and the state’s population growth soars, making the purchase of conservation lands even more pressing.

Last year lawmakers made a flimsy attempt to support Florida Forever, directing the DEP to sell unneeded tracts and use that revenue — as much as $50 million — for land acquisition.

There is nothing wrong with DEP getting rid of parcels that have little environmental value. Sometimes landowners require such outlying properties to be included when the state is purchasing a large conservation tract.

But this never should have never been considered a major funding source for Florida Forever.

The DEP ended up proposing a number of important refuges for potential sale. Even after citizens’ outrage caused the agency to drop many sites, critical resources remained on the for-sale list, including more than 2,000 acres in the Green Swamp, an essential regional water resource that is the source of four rivers, including the Hillsborough.

DEP also included barrier islands and land along the Wekiwa Springs State Park that serves as a corridor for black bears.

Latvala, a conservative Republican who understands the importance of stewardship, rightly scolded DEP officials at a recent state Senate subcommittee meeting when they told him the policy had generated no money and the for-sale list was still being prepared.

As the News Service of Florida reported, Latvala said, “This is just a charade that we’re going to sell land and we’re going to use it to buy land and replace a program put in place by Gov. [Bob] Martinez in 1990 and kept going by Gov. [Jeb] Bush.”

DEP officials say the final for-sale list should be ready by next month, but it’s impossible to have confidence in a process that has been so haphazard.

Like Latvala, lawmakers should recognize their Florida Forever shortcut has been a disaster and resolve to support a scandal-free program that is saving the best of Florida for future generations.

And citizens can take matters into their own hands by backing the Water and Land Conservation Amendment to the state constitution, which would ensure Florida Forever received adequate funding and was free of such ill-considered legislative ploys.

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