By MICHAEL PELTIER – THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, APRIL 7, 2010… ..The controversy over a proposed $536 million deal to purchase 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar property for Everglades restoration landed in the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday as parties jousted over whether the project is worth the debt .
The state’s highest court is being asked to determine if the South Florida Water Management District was justified in approving the sale of bonds for the project.
Lawyers for the Miccosukee Tribe and competitors including Florida Crystals say the parcel, reduced from its original footprint of more than 180,000 acres, is essentially a sweetheart deal for U.S. Sugar Co., which will still be allowed to farm much of the tract for years to come.
“U.S Sugar knows what it’s doing,” Dexter Lehtinen, attorney for the tribe, told the Supreme Court.
Water management officials and environmentalists say the purchase is critical in efforts to substantially improve water quality in the River of Grass.
“We believe this land acquisition provides the best and last chance for significant Everglades restoration,” said Thom Rumberger, an attorney representing Florida Audubon. “The purchase of the land itself has merit.”
Gov. Charlie Crist announced plans in 2008 for the purchase of 180,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar located south of Lake Okeechobee for more than $1.3 billion in what would have been the largest land purchase in state history.
Economic realities, however, forced negotiators to downsize the project to 73,000 acres. Last year, the water management district voted to levy $536 million in bonds to pay for it.
The Miccosukee challenged the new deal, saying the parcel no longer satisfies a requirement that it serve a public purpose because it’s too small to substantially improve the region. If it doesn’t, the water management district cannot float bonds to pay for it, Lehtinen argued. And there’s no clear improvement project laid out anyway, the tribe says.
“The South Florida Water Management District fails to identify with any specificity any project they plan to carry out with the money raised,” Lehtinen told the court.
Proponents of the sale say details of the effort will emerge as the state moves forward. First, the state has to buy the land.
“It’s simple. We’re buying 73,000 acres of very valuable land south of Lake Okeechobee and north of the Everglades,” said Randy Hanna, representing the water management district. “It will be used for Everglades restoration and water storage.”
The court’s review is limited to the propriety of the bond sale, but other issues including a recent federal court ruling ordering water managers to continue work on a reservoir project stalled by the U.S. Sugar deal provide a larger backdrop.
In March, Chief U.S. District Judge Frederico Moreno ordered the state to restart an $800 million reservoir project in the Everglades Agricultural Area that had been mothballed to free up funds for the U.S. Sugar deal. By his order, Moreno upheld a 2006 special master’s ruling recommending the construction in response to a lawsuit by the Miccosukee Tribe.
“The court cannot allow members of the consent decree to abandon projects when new opportunities arise unless the property process is employed to amend those commitments,” Moreno wrote.
Justices made no ruling Wednesday, but pressed Lehtinen during his presentation on what degree of specificity would be enough to allow the district to sell bonds paid for by property taxes levied on residents of the 16-county area.
“Doesn’t the purchase of a large section of property …serve the purpose of Everglades restoration just by having undeveloped land?,” Justice Barbara Pariente asked.
Independent and Indispensable