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Deadline approaching for land purchase

By Staff | Apr 24, 2015

You’ve seen the television commercials. You’ve heard the pleas.

Buy the Land. Save out drinking water.

May 1 -just seven days away from today – looms as a deadline for water quality.

Last November, 75 percent of Floridians voted for Amendment 1 (Water and Land Conservation) to the Florida Constitution. The action dedicated 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years. The vote allowed funds to be added to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire lands, restore them and manage improvements. These funds could be used to clean and protect the Everglades, protect our drinking water and ease harmful high flow regulatory discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

The State of Florida must appropriate the funds to purchase the lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area currently under option by May 1 or it will miss the Oct. 12 deadline to finalize a purchase of land at the agreed upon price.

Residents and visitors are urged to call state legislators and government officials to tell them you support purchase of the land.

“If our state government decides NOT to use Amendment 1 funds for the purchase of the land south of Lake Okeechobee from the sugar industry, then our state government IS surely deciding to ignore over 75 percent of you and I as Florida voters and the true owners of Amendment 1, while reaffirming that our state elected officials are truly representing special interests, not representing the public interest they have been sworn in on Election Day to represent,” said Fort Myers Beach resident and clean water activist John Heim, who was named 2014 River Champion by Washington D.C.-based American Rivers organization last year. “How can we educate our children to have faith in and participate in our electoral process when we, as their parents, can plainly see that the electoral process is a living lie proven by ignoring the will of its own people who demand Amendment 1 funds for the purchase of the land south of Lake Okeechobee?”

Heim has made six trips to Tallahassee to demand the purchase of the land south of the Lake. During his latest trip, he and many others voiced their concerns directly to Gov. Scott.

“Without the land deal, we will be basically cutting off our area’s clean water supply, which indeed will be the end of times for you and I here locally,” he said. “No clean water, no more FMB as you know and love it. Sadly, that’s the reality for us all locally, come May 1. Our reality may become something even worse then an obvious, sold-out state government.

“If we cannot be granted a basic human right such as ‘clean water,’ then we can be sure to know our very existence doesn’t even matter anymore to our state government.”

Last month, at a news conference at Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers, conservation organizations and local officials urged the state legislature to purchase Everglades Agriculture Area lands and by holding signs and speaking of the importance of stopping the discharges into the river, which they said is killing the estuary.

County Commissioner Frank Mann, a lifelong resident and strong environmental proponent, stated it has been an issue that always seems to get close to having something done but never happens.

“I was born here and learned to swim and waterski in this river when it was natural,” Mann said then. “In the last 100 years, we have made a serious effort to mess it up.”

In 2010, U.S. Sugar Corporation agreed via a binding, signed contract to sell 46,000 acres of its land -26,000 of which is directly south of Lake O. That Everglades area land could be used to store, clean water and flow water south from the lake to the “river of grass” as it once did. Water storage could be created with such strategic acreage to allow such cleaning and restoration efforts.

The option is for the state to pay $7,400 per acre or fair market value if it is higher than that amount. This land is currently being eyed for expanded mining and residential development, which will only drive up the costs of the land even further in the future.

The estimates are $350 million to buy all the land, but with Amendment 1 expected to generate $650 million annually, as well as other funding possibilities, the land is affordable, according to Jennifer Hecker, of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Over the years, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen have polluted Lake Okeechobee. That polluted water is now held within the lake until it is so high that it must be dumped down both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, sending tainted water east and west into the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and beachfronts. On the west coast, it damages our coastal estuaries, kills fish and contributes to algae blooms and red tide.

“The solution is in our hands. The opportunity is for the legislature to appropriate the funds before May, when the session ends,” said Rae Anne Wessel of the Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation at the recent news conference. “This is the only solution for high flows that are catastrophic to our rivers, estuary and Gulf ecosystem.”

Due to the amendment’s dedicated funds, now is the ideal time to purchase the 46,800 acres of sugar land to the state for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. Money and land are now available, but U.S. Sugar is said to be backing out of its original agreement. State government must force sugar industry officials to honor their binding written contract, but they are balking.

Repeated emails and calls to Gov. Scott’s office to ask if he would consider appropriation of funds to purchase the lands by May 1 and why if he chose not to yielded no response.

Prior to President Obama’s visit to the Everglades on Wednesday, he released a statement: “President Obama needs to live up to his commitment on the Everglades and find a way to fund the $58 million in backlog funding Everglades National Park hasn’t received from the federal government. This has caused critical maintenance delays in the Everglades to linger for over a year. We also need the federal government to step up their commitment to Everglades restoration by immediately requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to repair the Lake Okeechobee dike. As we continue to make important investments in our environment, the President’s latest budget cuts millions from the repair of the Lake Okeechobee Dike – the rehabilitation of which is critical to the protection of south Florida’s estuaries. Our environment is too important to neglect and it’s time for the federal government to focus on real solutions and live up to their promises.”

According to Everglades Trust, the Everglades ecosystem is a major contributor to Florida yet agricultural pollution kills two to nine acres a day and could lead to the loss of a $20 billion tourism industry, more than 365,000 jobs and the only source of safe clean drinking water for more than eight million Floridians. The organized group of activists, businesses and community leaders are committed to defend America’s Everglades and hold polluters and lawmakers accountable.

According to Rob Moher, president and CEO of Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Gov. Scott. needs to “direct the state water management agency for our region to immediately initiate appraisals to know the fair market value of the land.”

“Without that, the legislators cannot know how much to appropriate before the end of legislative session May 1,” said Moher via guest commentary. “The state legislators need to fund the purchase, either through using funds available from the passage of Amendment 1 or bonding as has been done for other state land purchases.”

Moher asks everyone to go to www.conservancy.org/policy/alert/everglades-agricultural-area to write a quick email to the governor and legislators asking them to make good on their promise to restore our waters and the Everglades through the purchase of this land.

Proponents say the need is justified, the plan has been put in place. So why hasn’t it been thrust into action for Florida’s most vital natural areas?

Amendment 1 overview

* provides funding to protect water quality in Florida’s rivers, lakes, streams, beaches, and estuaries for future generations.

* directs one-third of existing fees collected when real estate is sold (the “Documentary Stamp Tax”).

* This will result in over $10 billion to preserve Florida’s wildlife habitat, wetlands, water quality over the 20-year life of the amendment without any increase in taxes.

You can reach Gov. Rick Scott at 1-(850)-717-9337 (rick.scott@eog.myflorida .com), House Speaker Steve Crisafulli at 1-(850)-717-5051 (steve.crisafulli @myfloridahouse.gov) Senate President Andy Gardiner at 1-(850)-487-5229 (gardiner.andy.web @flsenate.gov).