Bringing in another buyer could help lock up the 180,000 acres of farmland Gov. Charlie Crist covets for Everglades restoration.
The state's economic woes forced Crist last month to scale down his $1.34 billion proposal to use U.S. Sugar Corp. land to restore water flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
Next week the South Florida Water Management District votes on the governor's amended $536 million deal to buy 73,000 acres. The deal includes a 10-year option to purchase 107,000 more acres from U.S. Sugar.
But with tax revenues dropping because of the struggling economy, questions remain about how the district can afford to buy 73,000 acres and build reservoirs and water treatment on the land -- much less pay for another 107,000 acres in 10 years.
The answer, district officials said Thursday, could be using the option for the remaining 107,000 acres to strike a deal with another buyer interested in acquiring some of U.S. Sugar's land.
That could allow the district to get a portion of the 107,000 acres needed for restoration or swap for land more strategically located between the lake and the Everglades.
Getting more federal money for Everglades restoration could also help the state acquire the 107,000 acres.
"There's nothing to preclude us from getting other people's money," district Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle said. "As circumstances change, we are willing to be flexible."
Last month's version of the scaled-down deal raised questions about whether the land swaps envisioned back in June -- when Crist first announced the land buy -- would still work. The new version of the deal allows for limited land exchanges.
The district revealed Wednesday that financial hurdles would likely push the U.S. Sugar deal into next year. The previous goal was to close the deal by September, but the district may not have its financing in place until March.
The terms of the amended deal allow for the closing to be extended 90 days after the district's financing is approved, which could push the deal into June 2010.
The district plans to borrow the money for the deal, with South Florida taxpayers paying off the debt. U.S. Sugar rival Florida Crystals and other opponents to the deal have gone to court to fight the financing plan.
Yet even while opposing the deal, Florida Crystals has been in talks with the governor's office, the water management district and U.S. Sugar about striking a potential deal for some of U.S. Sugar's property.
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun