TALLAHASSE, Florida, December 18, 2008 (ENS) - Governor Charlie Crist today joined the chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, state environmental and economic officials, and environmentalists to applaud the SFWMD Governing Board's approval this week in favor of an historic land acquisition for Everglades restoration.
By one vote, the seven-member Board of the South Florida Water Management District Tuesday narrowly approved a plan for the nation's largest sugar company to sell some 180,000 acres of land - about 285 square miles - to the state of Florida.
The $1.34 billion land-only agreement with the U.S. Sugar Corporation is one of the largest environmental land acquisitions in American history. Proponents view the deal as the cornerstone of environmental efforts to restore natural water flow to the Everglades after decades of farming and development.
Florida lawmakers have voiced concern about the deal when the state is gripped by an economic crisis and is cutting services to citizens.
Some environmentalists have also expressed their disapproval, while others approve of the opportunity to restore water flows to the giant wetlands that is the Everglades.
"This land acquisition is the most important, most historic step taken toward true Everglades restoration. It creates unprecedented possibilities for the River of Grass and for our environment," said Governor Crist at a news conference today.
"I am grateful to the members of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board for their support, which came after thoughtful and deliberate consideration. This land purchase reflects the courage and tenacity of so many people who, like the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas, have worked to protect this unique environmental treasure."
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) was an American journalist, writer and environmentalist known for her defense of the Florida Everglades against draining and development. In 1947, she published the book "The Everglades: River of Grass," which redefined the Everglades as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp.
If completed, the land purchase will be used to reestablish a part of the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the River of Grass through a managed system of storage and treatment. The land also will be used to safeguard the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and estuaries.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for restoration. The immense environmental benefit of these lands and their value to Florida's unique Everglades ecosystem cannot be overstated," SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Eric Buermann told reporters today.
"Without losing sight of Governor Crist's bold vision for restoration, the board has evaluated the details of the proposed acquisition and listened carefully to the input of Floridians, the Florida Legislature and local elected leaders," he said.
"Amending the contract before us is an important step for delivering an agreement that not only meets South Florida's environmental needs but also better protects the interests of the taxpayers. This is good government and the public process at work," said Buermann. "We are hopeful that U.S. Sugar will agree to this essential and necessary improvement to the contract and accept the Board's revision."
Highlights of the purchase and lease agreements include:
- The district would take ownership of a minimum of 180,000 acres land and its improvements for a purchase price of $1.34 billion.
- Under a separate agreement, U.S. Sugar would lease and manage the land for agricultural operation for seven years, avoiding more than $40 million in land management costs to the district over the life of the lease.
- The lease arrangement would allow the release of the first 10,000 acres of property to the district at any time after the first year with appropriate notice. An additional 30,000 acres may be released in year six, on or after December 30, 2015.
- The lease agreement would also allow for the release of up to 3,000 acres in connection with land transfers to municipalities or other governmental entities.
- The company would retain ownership of its major assets, including a sugar mill, refinery, railroad and citrus processing plant.
- Subject to court validation and suitable market conditions, the district would issue certificates of participation to fund the land acquisition. The parties must close on the purchase within 90 days of bond validation and no later than September 25, 2009.
"This has been a time of uncertainty, but now that the agreement has been signed, it should provide a greater degree of certainty for our employees, our stockholders and our communities," Coker said. "We believe this deal serves the best strategic, long-term objectives of the company and its stockholders.
"Some have criticized the transaction as not providing a sufficient return to U.S. Sugar stockholders while others have criticized the transaction as being too generous to U.S. Sugar stockholders. Without a doubt, we would not be doing this if we didn't believe it was a fair deal for our stockholders," Coker said.
"In addition, this is a tremendous opportunity for our state and her people, and the government would not be doing this if they did not feel it was fair to them," he said. "This is a monumental opportunity to save the Everglades, and after many months of negotiations, we can now move forward."
Although the company will continue to farm the land and operate its businesses for at least seven years as defined in the contract, Coker said U.S. Sugar intends to work "quickly and diligently with state and federal interests" to put together an economic transition plan for the local communities.
Florida House leaders have called for a review by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee, chaired by Representative Trudi Williams, an environmental and civil engineer. She is a Fort Myers Republican and a former chairwoman of the water district, who also chairs the House Committee on Environmental Protection. She is among several legislators who wrote water managers in opposition to the purchase.
Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged that the contract he wrote with U.S. Sugar will need broader political support state lawmakers and local communities to come to completion.
"This is just the beginning," Sole said. "We have a lot of work ahead."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.