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Florida Governor, cabinet OK lease extensions for SFWMD

OKEECHOBEE—Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper knew, with only 5 minutes to present their cases, he and other environmentalists had little to no chance of stopping the no-bid lease extensions for two giant agricultural concerns.

And Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet didn’t surprise him.

That cabinet on Wednesday, Jan. 23, unanimously approved 30-year, no-bid leases for A. Duda & Sons and Florida Crystals in southern Glades County despite the objections of the environmentalists.

“The agencies had pressed upon the governor that these leases were really essential to restoration projects and we couldn’t compellingly make the case to turn that around,” said Mr. Draper.

He went on to say that the cabinet’s vote was probably based on its own rules.

“The cabinet can create its own rules. It’s not a level playing field,” he offered.

With the approval of the board of trustees, Duda can now sell 638 acres of their property to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) for $1.9 million ($2,984 per acre). That is a discount of 56 percent from the appraised value of $6,800 per acre.

The district will also have the option of buying an additional 2,489 acres of property from Duda for $16.9 million.

That price is not discounted.

The 638 acres expected to be purchased by the district will be used to re-hydrate Lake Hicpochee, provide water storage for the Caloosahatchee River and improve water quality.

The SFWMD governing board unanimously approved Resolution 2013-105 earlier this month that paved the way for the district to begin negotiations with the Duda. This entire deal was contingent upon the state giving Duda the 30-year extensions on the property.

As for Florida Crystals, the district is expected to swap nearly 9,000 acres it acquired in the 2010 land deal with U.S. Sugar for 4,700 owned by Florida Crystals. That land will be used as a wetland to store and filter water bound for the Everglades.

Audubon Florida and the Florida Wildlife Federation both presented objections to the cabinet about the long-term leases.

The cabinet—made up of Gov. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater—ignored the objections, however, and cast their votes without comment.

The SFWMD land purchase policies have raised questions before. Commissioner Putnam and his family sold 2,042 acres of their property in Highlands County to the district in 2005. The district purchased that property because it needed about 600 acres for environmental purposes, and paid the Putnam family $25.5 million for the property. That same property had been appraised at $5.5 million the year before. And, by the time the district paid the Putnam family attorney $3.9 million, the total deal cost Florida taxpayers close to $30 million.

The district and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a joint statement after the vote that said the district can now move ahead with plans to clean up the Everglades.

“The Trustees’ decision to extend agricultural leases for two lessees on state-owned land makes it possible for the SFWMD to move forward with aggressive plans for water quality improvements. This approach supports the state’s timely implementation of these water quality projects critical to the health of the Everglades and the vital Caloosahatchee watershed,” said that statement.

But, Mr. Draper voiced concerns about the quality of water that will be moving off the properties and into the Everglades.

“One of our objections is that farming is bringing in too much fertilizer,” he said, adding that the area is already a “high-nutrient environment.”

He went on to say Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades Agriculture Area (EAA) are complying with existing regulations to control nutrients but it’s still not enough to keep the Everglades from degrading even more.

Two of the largest areas where the leases are to be lengthened (Duda #1935 - 5,765 acres, and Florida Crystals #1447 - 2,544 acres) “... also appear to be sites that produce some of the worst phosphorus pollution in the EAA,” stated one of Audubon’s objections.

Audubon also argued that the extensions would prevent the trustees from using these lands for possible expansion of Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), Water Storage Areas or similar purposes related to the restoration of the Everglades.

The group also argued that the cash to be paid to Duda and the land swap with Florida Crystals “... amounts to unjustifiable windfalls,” and that the leases should not be extended because the land in these areas are comprised of muck and are oxidizing rapidly at a rate of .5 to 1 inches per year.

“In the case of the Duda lease tract, there appears to be less than 30 inches of muck soil remaining,” the Audubon stated.

When asked what his group’s next step would be, Mr. Draper said they will continue to try and get stiffer rules regarding the use of fertilizer.

“We’re not going to do a legal challenge on the leases. We’re going to continue to press the government to set up rules to require farmers to use less fertilizer,” he said. “We think that’s the only way to control the source of pollution.

It may take a long time to get there, but you just have to keep going back at it.”