A judge's ruling Wednesday kept alive Gov. Charlie Crist's bid for a half-billion-dollar Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp.
But Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Donald Hafele struck down the proposal to borrow as much as $2.2 billion for additional land buys from U.S. Sugar and to help pay for construction of reservoirs and treatment areas that would be built on the farmland.
The ruling allows the South Florida Water Management District to move forward with its $536 million plan to buy an initial 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar. However, the ruling also calls into question whether Crist and the district, which leads Everglades restoration, will be able to buy an additional 107,000 acres from U.S. Sugar as proposed.
The judge allowed the district to borrow as much as $650 million.
"The district has failed to show any purpose with respect to the acquisition of the remaining 107,000 acres," Hafele wrote in his ruling. "A minimal level of specificity is required in order for the court to determine that a valid public purpose exists."
The district plans to use the U.S. Sugar land to build a system of reservoirs and treatment areas that would reconnect water flows from Lake Okeechobee to what remains of the Everglades.
Both supporters of the deal and the critics who say it costs too much claimed at least partial victories Wednesday. The case is likely to be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Crist said he remains confident that the judge's ruling allows his Everglades restoration plans to move forward in a "financially responsible manner." Federal money, land swaps and other funding options are being considered to acquire the additional land and help with construction costs.
"Today represents another step forward in achieving this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for achieving restoration of the River of Grass," Crist said in a written release Wednesday.
Opponents to the deal, including the Miccosukee Tribe and U.S. Sugar competitor Florida Crystals, argued to Hafele that the deal would cost taxpayers too much and warned that it would take money away from other delayed Everglades restoration projects.
Hafele determined that the district's plans for "surface water storage and treatment is a valid public purpose."
"Although the defendants allude to questionable motives in this land deal, they have provided no evidence showing that the land deal is primarily a 'bail out' of U.S. Sugar Corporation," Hafele wrote.
Opponents Wednesday still took credit for shaving $1.55 billion off the potential debt that would be shouldered by South Florida property taxpayers. The Miccosukee are "likely" to pursue an appeal, according to attorney Dexter Lehtinen. Florida Crystals Vice President Gason Cantens said the company was still considering its legal options.
Even with the approval to buy the land, the district doesn't have the billions of dollars needed to build reservoirs and treatment areas, Florida Crystals attorney Joe Klock said.
"They have no money to improve the land," Klock said. "How they could consider that a victory is beyond me."
The deal still remains a historic opportunity to acquire strategically located agricultural land once thought unattainable for Everglades restoration, said Thom Rumberger, president of the Everglades Trust.
"It really does represent a great step forward," Rumberger said. "We are going to build treatment areas and we are going to build reservoirs."
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun