One year after Florida’s $197 million land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp., the 26,800 acres of farmland that was supposed to mean a new direction for Everglades restoration remains citrus groves and sugar cane.
The South Florida Water Management District on Oct. 12, 2010 overcame two years of economic hurdles and legal fights to acquire farmland from U.S. Sugar that had long been off limits to Everglades restoration.
Environmentalists hailed the deal as an opportunity to get strategically located land to help build reservoirs and treatment areas to clean polluted stormwater needed to replenish the Everglades.
Critics of the deal, including the Miccosukee Tribe and U.S. Sugar rival Florida Crystals, argued that the land deal cost too much and would delay other Everglades restoration efforts.
The deal allows U.S. Sugar to keep farming the land until the district is ready to put it to use. The deal enabled the district to begin using much the land for restoration in 2012, but so far there are no plans to start building.
"The biggest concern is that it looks like the land is not being put to use," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club, which supported the land deal. "There’s still a great deal of need."
The 26,800 acres includes two big pieces: 17,900 acres of citrus land in Hendry County, beside existing stormwater-treatment areas; and 8,900 acres of sugar cane land in Palm Beach County, east of Lake Okeechobee.
The deal, pushed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, also included a 10-year option for the water management district to buy the rest of U.S. Sugar’s remaining 153,000 acres.
Crist originally proposed a nearly $2 billion deal to buy all of U.S. Sugar’s land, but Florida’s souring economy resulted in the water management district opting for a scaled-down version.
Florida’s economic woes, as well as a change in state leadership, squashed plans for buying more U.S. Sugar land and also left construction plans for the land on hold.
Gov. Rick Scott opposed the land deal when he was a candidate and since taking office has changed the leadership at the district and pushed for cutting the agency’s budget by 30 percent.
Scott’s new Everglades plan, which he proposed last week, could result in offering some of the former U.S. Sugar land as trade bait.
The proposal envisions swapping state land for private property in order to build new reservoirs closer to existing stormwater treatment areas. That could include trading much of Palm Beach County portion of the former U.S. Sugar land.
Scott’s plan also potentially makes use of an unfinished reservoir in southwestern Palm Beach County, which already cost South Florida tax payers nearly $280 million. It could now be used to build a new water storage facility that could feed neighboring stormwater treatment areas.
The district shelved that reservoir while pursuing the U.S. Sugar deal and Florida Crystals contends that the unfinished reservoir is an example of how the U.S. Sugar deal derailed Everglades restoration.
The reservoir, "should never have been stopped in the first place," Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said. "They could have been storing water there."
While state officials continue to weigh how to use the 26,800 acres, U.S. Sugar keeps farming the land.
The deal allows U.S. Sugar to keep using the citrus land rent free - while continuing to pay property taxes - until the district is ready to take possession. The district is pursuing finding a paying tenant, which could end up being U.S. Sugar, to use the land until it’s needed for construction.
U.S. Sugar pays $150 per acre per year to lease the sugar cane property. According to the deal, the earliest that land would be available to the district is May 2013.
Buying the U.S. Sugar land was a worthwhile investment that will eventually pay off for the Everglades, said Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham.
"Land purchases rarely pay off overnight," Fordham said. "In the long run, the land acquisition will have proven its usefulness."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun