PALM BEACH — Gov. Charlie Crist's Big Sugar land buy survives — for now.
The South Florida Water Management District's governing board on Thursday agreed unanimously to extend an expiring deadline by six months on the $536 million land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp. Members said that while they were concerned about busting the budget, they still had the option of walking away later if they decide they can't afford it.
Critics urged the board to take the opportunity to kill the deal now, saying the agency's own financial advisers and budget managers project gushes of red ink and cuts to existing projects and programs — even without adding the $45 million in annual debt it would cost to finance the land purchase.
"Proceeding with this deal is like taking out a loan for a fancy car when you can't feed and clothe your children," said Barbara Miedema, vice president of Belle Glade's Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, a coalition of small growers.
But two dozen environmentalists urged the board to stay the course and acquire 72,500 acres of citrus groves and sugar fields envisioned as the first phase of a massive land buy that environmentalists and water managers say is essential to providing the Everglades with clean and plentiful water. The deal also includes options to purchase another 107,000 acres of sugar farms for about $794 million.
Sara Fain, co-chairwoman of the Everglades Coalition, which includes 53 of the state's largest environmental groups, said U.S. Sugar was the only willing seller in the sprawling farm belt south of Lake Okeechobee.
"You have a mission to restore the Everglades and this is what you need to do to it," she said. "A small group of naysayers is saying, 'This is not the deal.' But what's the other deal? There is no other deal."
The deal, downsized twice since Crist unveiled it 20 months ago after eight months of private negotiations with the sugar giant, has been under siege from rival grower Florida Crystals, the Miccosukee Tribe and state lawmakers, who contend it would hurt restoration more than help it and drain money from existing projects.