More land to no purpose, more government waste in Florida. Thursdays South Florida Water Management District vote was all that and so much more.
The unanimous vote of the governing board turned the ailing Florida Everglades a natural masterpiece without equal into little more than a gold chip in a game of greed and ambition.
And frankly, it made me sick.
Back on April 1, when I wrote about Judge Federico Moreno ordering construction to resume on the 16,700-acre A-1 reservoir, I believed just as former Gov. Jeb Bush, former executive director of the Water Management District Henry Dean, and many others that the Everglades had a chance again.
Finally, I thought, were going to build restoration projects, just as we were doing before we got sidetracked on Gov. Charlie Crists U.S. Sugar deal.
But I should have known better.
It took a newspaper from New York City to show Floridians that U.S. Sugar was taking them for a ride. And even then, they wouldnt believe it. Land is the thing. Gotta have land. And so, with the governors encouragement, the U.S. Sugar deal continued through two downsizings.
Well, I spent a lot of years as an editor and columnist in Stuart writing about the folly of land purchased for something that turned into nothing the millions of dollars spent on the Inlet State Park that never became one, the property for a public golf course that lapsed into a preserve, the rights of way purchased for roundabouts that were engineered and then canceled on a commissions whim.
But Ive never seen anything to match the sheer dimwitted absurdity of handing over $197 million, the sum total of all your cash as the Water Management District did Thursday to a seller holding a gun to your head.
On Aug. 4 the seller, U.S. Sugar, gave the district one day to agree to the deal, and a week to get the board to Thursdays decision meeting. Its that or nothing, U.S. Sugar said. And if you agree to the $197 million for 26,800 acres but have to back out of the deal later, you owe us $10 million no excuses, no out clause. (The district says, yes, there is an out if the deal is blocked in court; attorneys say, no, there is no exception.)
And for $197 million, you get to let U.S. Sugar use 17,900 acres of dead citrus land for free, for as long as 20 years; and 8,900 acres of the sugar land for $150 an acre. Bottom line, you empty your pockets, U.S. Sugar fills theirs, you come to a dead stop, they keep on truckin.
Youve created one happy seller because now you cant afford to develop any part of the Everglades restoration project. Youre broke, theyre flush, and unless you raise some taxes --with, say, the help of a supportive, friendly governor then you arent going to phase in too much restoration.
Interestingly, most defenders of the U.S. Sugar deal Thursday were establishment people government workers and members of A-list environmental organizations.
My personal favorite speaker was Drew Martin from the Sierra Club. He somehow found a way to compare the Sugar deal with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. I guess in Martins mind, board Chairman Eric Buermann is Thomas Jefferson and U.S. Sugar is France.
Before Thursdays vote was taken, the smart folks asked the Water Management District to wait. Wait to see if the three Indian burial mounds on the property can be moved. Wait to see whats involved in cleaning up the two polluted parcels. Wait to see if the federal judge is going to grant the Miccosukee Tribes request to halt the sale. The Miccosukees have a point, after all. If the sale goes through, wheres the money going to come from to build a reservoir?
Heres where I came unglued:
Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation said, We cant afford to wait any longer. You cant build [restoration] projects without land.
Really? The Water Management District has land all over the place. Even if we ignore the 233,000 acres the district owns for Everglades restoration already, what about the property mostly north of the lake, bought-and-paid-for, to help clean the polluted water now flowing into the lake and save the St. Lucie River and estuary?
This is something I know about. In 2002 Martin County paid $2,500 an acre for 13,000 acres of Allapattah Ranch. In 2007 when real estate was at its peak Martin shelled out $12,800 an acre for the last 7,000-plus acres of the ranch. We all cheered both purchases. Anything to help the Everglades and our sick river.
We bought the need for those land buy-backs then, just as the supporters of the U.S. Sugar deal did Thursday. But check it out. Allapattah is now in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hands for God-knows-what federal purpose.
Tom Kenny, a former Martin County commissioner, told me Thursday night, Martin has about $43 million so far in land buys it made for the Everglades.
Allapattah isnt the only property bought as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP). In all, there are some 130,000 must-have-but-no-rush acres, including the Everglades Agricultural Area (31,600 acres), and Indian River Lagoon parcel (26,800 acres).
I asked Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, what she thought of Thursdays unanimous vote. Im disappointed but not surprised, she said. Im a great supporter of Everglades restoration, somebody who sponsored Everglades Forever. But this is the wrong land, wrong time, wrong price.
We should never have switched from building projects, from a reservoir that was nearly built, that we had already put $300 million into, to buying land that brings us to a halt.
Asked if theres anything that can be done to get Everglades restoration back on track, Dockery said, Its up to the governor. The governor can make it or break it.
But lets be honest, U.S. Sugar handed $680,000 over to Bill McCollum for his campaign. And thats just the money we know about.
I think, when this deal closes, U.S. Sugar and Bill McCollum will owe 18 million Floridians a gigantic thank you.
There you have it. That gold chip of greed and ambition a sugar giant and a gubernatorial candidate playing for some very high stakes. They want it all and, apparently, they dont think it matters how transparent their motives are.
Meanwhile, the Everglades. What chance for the River of Grass?
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (850) 727-0859.