South Florida water managers today gave the initial go-ahead to Gov. Charlie Crist's scaled-down, $533 million land deal for Everglades restoration.
The South Florida Water Management District now must negotiate the final details with U.S. Sugar Corp. for the purchase of 72,500 acres that would be used to help restore water flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
District board members said a key part of that negotiation should be trying to lower the average per-acre price to get the deal closer to the $300- to $400-million range.
The struggling economy killed the governor's previous $1.34 billion plan to buy 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar farmland that would be used to build a series of reservoirs and water treatment areas.
The new deal leaves open the chance for the state to eventually acquire the same amount of land. It gives the district a 10-year option to buy another 107,500 acres owned by U.S. Sugar, if the economy rebounds and the district's financial position improves.
U.S. Sugar would get to lease back much of the initial 72,500 acres until the district can begin construction on restoration projects.
The amended contract goes back to the district's board in May.
The chance to buy large swaths of farmland, strategically located between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, makes the deal worth pursuing, Board Member Melissa Meeker said.
"It's that once in a lifetime opportunity," Meeker said. "None of us think it's perfect.
It is in the state's best interest to move forward to negotiate."
Critics of the U.S. Sugar deal warn that even the reduced cost threatens to take money away from other stalled Everglades projects. Some previously planned reservoirs have already been put on hold.
"What we need is water storage and we need it today," said Board Member Michael Collins, who has opposed the cost and construction delays that could come with the various versions of the U.S. Sugar deal. "The deals we've been brought stink."
The district must still secure financing for the land deal, which faces a September closing deadline.
$533 million Everglades land deal gets initial go-ahead
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