The governor and Cabinet on Wednesday granted 30-year leases to a pair of sugar growers over the objections of environmental groups that urged the panel to approve much shorter terms for the tracts that drain into the Everglades.
By unanimous vote, the panel approved the renewal of leases for Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons on separate tracts totaling more than 13,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area. In exchange the companies have agreed to sell parcels that water management district officials say they need now.
The leases have the support of the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees Everglades restoration efforts.
Melissa Meeker, the district's executive director, told Cabinet members the lease deals were critical to ongoing negotiations between the district and the companies for tracts needed for "shovel ready" projects on parcels adjacent to land the state already owns that impact the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee River.
"You are considering what I consider the critical pieces of two distinct public interest projects," Meeker said.
The leases will allow the state to negotiate with each owner for tracts it wants to buy. Meeker said the state is buying the parcels for half their appraised value, a good deal at a time when the district has little money to spend on new purchases.
Environmentalists, however, say the length of the leases is of particular concern.
Representatives from Audubon of Florida and the Florida Wildlife Federation questioned the wisdom of granting 30-year leases to the property, saying the agreements could tie the hands of state officials as the decades-long Everglades cleanup evolves.
"You are the landlord and it is your right and your duty to insist that the tenant maximize their efforts to reduce the impact of the land," said Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper. "The lease extensions preclude your ability to insist upon that accountability. "
Meeker said the state will continue to have the authority to ramp up environmental requirements on the leased lands.
Given the need to move forward with restoration efforts, Meeker said the state needs to focus on what it can accomplish within the next several years.
"We have enough to do," Meeker said. "Let's get in the ground and start moving dirt and do what we need to do for Everglades restoration and focus on what we need to do now."