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Plan shrinks state’s first land purchase in deal with U.S. Sugar

By Staff | Apr 1, 2009

Gov. Charlie Crist announced revised plans Wednesday for the Everglades Restoration plan, one that reflects the hardships of an ailing economy.
The plan scales back the state’s initial purchase from 180,000 acres to 72,500 acres of property south of Lake Okeechobee at a price of $530 million.
It is the first step in a plan that stretches over a decade, allowing the U.S. Sugar Corporation to lease land back from the state, gradually reducing its operations.
According to a prepared statement from Crist’s office, the revised plan eases the burden on sugar workers in the town of Clewiston, all of whom will eventually be put out of work.
State DEP Secretary Mike Sole said the plan is designed to help the town of Clewiston, and to reduce the burden on state taxpayers.
“With the governor’s support, the parties have explored alternatives that allow for the acquisition of strategic and desirable lands but under a schedule that reduces the taxpayer’s investment today,” he said.
In Lee County, the move to restore the natural flow of water in the Everglades helps to protect local water quality.
In years past, especially during the hectic hurricane seasons of 2004-2005, high water levels in Lake Okeechobee have forced the South Florida Water Management District to release water into the Caloosahatchee River.
The water releases are filled with nutrients from U.S. Sugar’s farming operations south of Lake Okeechobee. The nutrients have been responsible for red drift algae, fish kills and damages to local estuaries.
Though the plan has been revised, it still gets support from local conservation groups like PURRE, or People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries.
“The way they structured the deal, we have no problem with that,” said Mike Valiquette, PURRE’s chairman. “We really didn’t need that much land … our position has been get what you can and lease back what you don’t need.”
He said the new deal includes a crucial piece of land, the 32,000-acre Diston Island tract, that would allow for water storage during the release events from Lake Okeechobee.
“We’re confidant were going to have what we need to move water south,” Valiquette said.
The revised plan also allows the state to retain a 10-year option to purchase the rest of the originally targeted acreage.
The new deal still has to meet the approval of the U.S. Sugar board of directors.
Lee County Commissioners Ray Judah and Bob Janes did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.