Gov. Charlie Crist today announced a slimmed-down, $533 million deal to buy 72,500 acres of U.S. Sugar land in an attempt to restore water flow to the Everglades.
This is the second time that economic reality has forced Crist to scale back his ambitious plan to buy out U.S. Sugar, originally envisioned last summer as a $1.75-billion, 187,000-acre transaction.
Despite the smaller scope, Crist said it's still the biggest land purchase in Florida's history, representing acreage that's twice the size of Orlando.
"Even though it's scaled down, it's still the biggest ever," Crist said. "The economy has been what it has been. We have to deal within the parameters we are given."
The state will have a 10-year option to buy an additional 107,000 acres owned by U.S. Sugar, if the economy rebounds and the South Florida Water Management District is in a stronger financial position.
Taxpayers in the water district's 17 counties -- including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade -- will pay for the deal.
In another significant change, the state tripled the rate at which it will lease back land to U.S. Sugar, to $150 an acre. The sugar giant agreed to the change because the $50 lease rate -- about one-fourth of market prices -- had become a "sticking point" for many, said company lobbyist Robert Coker.
"There were a number of concessions made by everyone," Coker said.
The lease term for U.S. Sugar to continue to farm on the 72,500 acres is still seven years with an option to renew, meaning the company will be in business until at least 2016 and probably longer. The sugar giant also will continue to farm on the 107,000 remaining acres until the state exercises its option to purchase the land, Coker said.
Crist decided to downsize the sugar buyout after critics, in the Legislature and elsewhere, said the state could not afford the deal, considering the state's tight finances.
Even water management district officials were split on whether to move forward with the U.S. Sugar buyout. The deal was on the verge of collapse, because of the frozen credit markets on Wall Street and plummeting tax revenue, which pays for the district's operations.
"These new terms ensure that it's right not only for our environment, but right for our economic times," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole.
Environmentalists strongly endorsed Crist's announcement. The new terms are "more targeted and economically feasible, while at the same time maintaining the governor's vision of restoring water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades," said Janet Bowman, of the Nature Conservancy.
Critics, however, still contend the new deal will take money away from other long-stalled Everglades restoration projects.
The water management district in June stopped work on a reservoir in western Palm Beach County. Intended to store water for the Everglades, the project already had cost taxpayers about $250 million. The U.S. Sugar deal brought into question whether the planned reservoir was in the right place.
Miccosukee Tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who has long championed Everglades causes, said the cost of the new deal still threatens to set back Everglades restoration 15 years.
Lehtinen called the scaled-down version a "bait and switch" from Crist's first proposal in June to buy all of U.S. Sugar's assets and move sugar cane farming out of the way of Everglades restoration.
"I'm flabbergasted that just to get (his) name on a press release the governor will torpedo Everglades restoration," said Lehtinen, who was part of a legal challenge to the previous deal. "This thing stinks from one side to the other."
Scaling down the proposed U.S. Sugar land deal hasn't quieted concerns from competing sugar growers, who have questioned the value of a taxpayer-funded deal for a swath of their rival's land.
"It looks to us that it's ... a cash infusion to a company," said Barbara Miedema, vice president for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. "What does the government get for it? How does this advance Everglades restoration?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun