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Officials, activists, warily hopeful on plan to buy Lake O land

By Staff | Aug 17, 2016

“It would be great… if they got it passed.”

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dennis Boback summarized what most others said about a $2.4 billion plan presented by Florida Sen. Joe Negron to buy 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee. Negron, incoming president of the Florida Senate, announced this plan Tuesday with promises to introduce it to Gov. Rick Scott and state legislation.

The plan would have the state spend $1.2 billion through bonds and get the federal government to match the dollars in order to buy the 60,000 acres, which are largely owned by U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals.

“They all talk about doing that, but they never appropriate the money,” Boback said. “Getting the legislation through is one thing.”

The land would then be used for Lake O drainage south, rather than down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems, a method that many believe will help filter the nutrient-rich water and restore natural flow.

When announced, the plan included very few details, especially where exactly the 60,000 acres are, a point of which has drawn criticism for Negron. City of Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane doesn’t see that as a reason to dismiss it, however.

“It’s good news,” he said. “I know the public wants details but it’s premature because you have to engineer this. It’s an infrastructure project. You have to design it, you need scientists, you need all the people involved.”

Negron did outline a general area for the land in a press release issued Tuesday. The 60,000 acres are southeast of the lake near an existing storm water treatment facility and to the south, “straddling” the Miami and Bolles Canals.

He’s thrilled that Negron, a prominent figure, has finally stated that the need is real and needs to be addressed. Ruane said he’s “optimistic” that Negron’s plan is sincere.

Ruane has been spearheading a movement to get local governments to appeal to the state about the need to accelerate the plan to redirect Lake O water south. The City of Sanibel drafted a resolution which was passed July 19 urging the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate the design and planning process for the Everglades Agricultural Area to provide land south of Lake O for storage and filtration. He sent the letter to the other municipalities of Lee County; so far, Bonita Springs, Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach have adopted the resolution. It’s on the Village of Estero and Fort Myers’ upcoming agendas for consideration.

Ruane is also on the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a group appointed by the governor which includes members from all stakeholder and agencies.

“Why I’m encouraged is, we’ve been asking to accelerate the decision because it’s going to take a lot of input,” he said.

The plan hinges on the government’s ability to convince sugar companies to sell their lands, however.

“I hate to see ‘Big Sugar’ go, because they employ a lot of people, but so do we and we’re losing that economy,” said Cape Coral City Councilmember Rick Williams. “Especially with tourism down by the beach.”

The push from local governments and environmental groups gives this plan a better chance, Williams believes. He said he’s disappointed it’s taken this long, but politics have blocked previous attempts, and could still prevent Negron’s plan from succeeding.

“There’s a lot of push-back from sugar, they have a lot of money,” he said. “It’s a big battle to be fought.”

Former governor Charlie Crist struck a deal with U.S. Sugar in 2010. The water management district paid $197 million for 26,800 acres. There was an offer on the table to buy another 46,800 acres, but the offer was not followed through and it expired in October 2015.

So, now the seller may not be willing to make a deal, and it’s a conundrum that Dick Anderson, Republican candidate challenging Larry Kiker for the Lee County Commission District 3 seat, has a hard time reconciling with.

“My first reaction, this is a step in the right direction,” he said. “But in my business experience, a real estate deal needs a willing seller and a willing buyer. Without that you don’t have a deal.”

If the state could indeed get the funds matched and spend the $2.4 billion, that would mean the land costs $40,000 an acre – a price that Anderson said is probably not appropriate.

The federal funding is something incumbent Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker isn’t going to hold his breath about – Kiker was involved in a congressional hearing in 2013 to appeal to the federal government to get $1.2 billion for Florida’s water quality issues, and that money still hasn’t been granted.

“Frankly, my concern… when you ask the government for another $1.2 billion – they haven’t funded the last billion,” he said.

Negron’s press release said his plan would take $100 million annually for 20 years from Amendment 1 funding to pay for the state’s commitment, and that he would spend his term as senate president obtaining that and other funding sources.

Kiker said sending the water south is part of the goal to “fix” the water quality issues, but that it’s more complicated and requires more discussion than just purchasing the land. However, he supports any opportunity that could resolve the problems that are having a devastating impact on the tourism industries and local ecological systems.

John Heim, founder of the SWFL Clean Water Movement, said anything but the plan to send water south would only be a “Band-aid” on Lake O’s water quality issues; however, he doesn’t trust Negron’s timing for introducing the plan.

Negron was elected to the Senate in 2009 after serving in the House of Representatives for six years.

“I think Negron has all the time in the world to get the land purchased,” Heim said. “People are suddenly champions of the water. Where were you two years ago?”

Heim suspects the move to be political, as it’s an election year, and Negon’s wife Rebecca is running for U.S. Congress.

Every election cycle brings about an “old bag of tricks,” Heim said, adding, “I won’t be celebrating him, he has a history of one day talking about water.”

He’ll wait for proof that the plan would go through before he’ll get excited.

Former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, a longtime environmental activist, offered a similar skepticism, especially over the lack of details in Negron’s announcement.

“Where is the land, how does it tie into connecting the flow from the lake to the Everglades?” he questions.

He’s also concerned with the price tag; he and Anderson have done the math. At $2.4 billion for 60,000 acres, that’s a charge of $40,000 per acre.

Judah referenced Crist’s deal of purchasing acreage in 2010. At the time, U.S. Sugar accepted the price which came out to about $7,400 an acre.

“The property has probably appreciated, but I highly doubt it’s appreciated that much,” Judah said.

An appraisal would be necessary to make sure tax dollars weren’t being wasted paying a premium for land, he said, but the dilemma is, it could still be a good deal in comparison to the consequences of not changing the water flow. The state is spending $16 billion on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP), which isn’t dedicated to helping the Lake O situation so, in comparison with $2.4 billion, “it obviously seems like a good deal.”

Boback, while supportive of a plan to divert water south, isn’t sure that paying $1.2 billion through bonds is fiscally responsible since Florida now has money specifically for preservation land purchase through Amendment 1, passed by voters in 2014. His sentiment was echoed by Williams.

“That money has already been appropriated for that kind of spending,” Boback said.