Opponents to an Everglades land deal have stepped up their attacks on a plan they say costs taxpayers too much and threatens to set back environmental restoration.
Critics of the $536 million deal are waging a legal battle to derail Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to buy 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. and use the land to restore Lake Okeechobee water flows to the Everglades.
Months of on-again, off-again court hearings were supposed to end Tuesday, but instead opponents succeeded in delaying the latest round of legal fights at least another day.
If the case wraps up today, it will then be up to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele to decide whether to endorse the financing plan that calls for South Florida property tax payers to pay for the blockbuster deal.
However Hafele rules, the case is expected to be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
The outcome of the case will determine whether Crist and South Florida water managers can press on with the bid to buy land to store, clean and redirect water that once naturally flowed to the Everglades.
The South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration for the state, proposes borrowing as much as $2 billion, which could be used to pay for the initial land deal as well as a potential second phase.
The money could also help pay for some of the future construction costs for reservoirs and water treatment areas. South Florida property tax payers would pay off the long-term debt.
Opponents to the deal include Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar's main sugar-producing rival, as well as the Miccosukee Tribe. They question the cost of the deal and raise concerns that it will take money away from other long-stalled Everglades restoration projects.
District officials acknowledge that they are pushing for the land deal before finalizing plans for how to use the property and that actual construction of water treatment and storage facilities could take decades.
Beyond the cost of buying the land, preliminary construction estimates discussed during the hearings ranged from $5 billion to $18 billion, with no set plan for how to pay for it.
Florida Crystals attorney Joe Klock joked that the district's message for why the court should support its plan to borrow $2 billion is "Trust us, we are the government."
"This project has no start and has no ending," Klock said. "We know they are going to buy the land. But we don't know what structures are going to go where."
Crist in June 2008 first proposed a $1.75 billion buyout of all of U.S. Sugar's 180,000 acres and facilities, including the company's Clewiston sugar plant. The national economic downturn coupled with opposition to the deal has since prompted the governor to twice scale down the deal.
The new $536 million deal limits the initial purchase to 73,000 acres, with the option to buy the remaining 107,000 acres, and allows U.S. Sugar to keep its mill and all of its other business assets.
U.S. Sugar would also get to lease back much of the 73,000 acres for up to 20 years, while the district plans the reservoirs and treatment area needed to deliver stormwater to the Everglades.
"The goals and benefits of this acquisition remain the same," Ken Ammon, who heads Everglades restoration for the district, testified Tuesday. "It makes it more affordable in the interim."
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun