Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar moves forward
$197 million deal closes Tuesday
After more than two years of legal fights and financial problems, the South Florida Water Management District on Tuesday is set to close on a deal to buy 26,800 acres of farmland to be used to help restore water flows to the Everglades.
The district envisions building stormwater storage and treatment areas to hold, clean and deliver water needed to replenish what remains of the Everglades.
The cost of the deal and disputes about whether to move forward have slowed the land-buying effort first announced by Gov. Charlie Crist in June 2008.
On Friday, the district's Land Acquisition Director Ruth Clements jokingly wore red boxing gloves as she discussed the final details about Tuesday's closing with the agency's board of directors.
"The final round is about to begin," Clements said, with boxing gloves raised. "The bell has rung and the district is prepared."
The land deal initially pushed by Crist first called for spending nearly $2 billion to buy all of U.S. Sugar's more than 180,000 acres, sugar mill and other facilities.
The sinking economy and plummeting property tax revenues led to the deal being downsized three times, resulting in the 26,800-acre version. The deal includes a 10-year option for the district to buy U.S. Sugar's remaining land.
Deal opponents, led by the Miccosukee Tribe and U.S. Sugar competitor Florida Crystals, waged a legal fight against the purchase arguing that it cost taxpayers too much, took money away from other overdue Everglades projects and unfairly enriched U.S. Sugar at taxpayers' expense.
"They don't have any money to do any [Everglades] projects," Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said about the district. "This whole thing has been an absolute joke."
Environmental groups largely supported the land deal, even as it shrunk in size. They argued it was a historic opportunity to acquire strategically located land that sugar companies had kept out of the reach of Everglades restoration.
"We are very excited about this deal," said Jane Graham, Everglades policy associate for Audubon of Florida. "It's been a long time coming."
After the sale is complete, U.S. Sugar plans to keep farming much of the land while the district designs the stormwater storage and treatment structures planned for the property, and raises the money to build them.
U.S. Sugar can use the citrus land that is part of the deal — almost 18,000 acres in Hendry County — rent free, while continuing to pay the taxes on the property. The company must pay $150 per acre each year to lease back the sugarcane land in the deal, which includes almost 9,000 acres in northern Palm Beach County.
Barring a last-minute intervention by the courts, the $197 million transaction for the U.S. Sugar deal is set to go through on Tuesday.
After that comes years of planning, permitting and construction to put the restoration in motion. The district may also try to trade some of the U.S. Sugar property for other agricultural land targeted for restoration.
"I really can't overstate how difficult this process was, but well, well worth it," district Board Member Shannon Estenoz said.
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.