Monday, October 15, 2018
Business

In outreach to large landowners, Gov. Rick Scott finds support for toll road project

TALLAHASSEE — To make way for a proposed network of sprawling toll roads, Florida transportation officials are considering reserving tracts of remote timberlands, cattle ranches and phosphate mines from some of the state's largest landowners.

According to a memo released this week by the Florida Department of Transportation, five companies that own a combined 5 percent of the land in the state support the concept of Future Corridors, a series of massive toll roads that would crisscross the state's rural areas to spur economic growth.

"While the need for future roads may be far off in the future," the memo states, "reserving land now provides certainty for planning and may be more cost efficient than future condemnation or acquisition."

Land acquisition can be a deal killer for any road project, so the memo, while brief and vague, could boost the prospects of a project that until recently had appeared dead.

Hatched by former Gov. Jeb Bush, Future Corridors was shelved by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who instead emphasized improving existing infrastructure and urban areas. Gov. Rick Scott, who like Bush killed a high-speed rail plan linking urban centers upon taking office, revived the Corridors project and views it as an economic engine for rural counties that will create jobs.

Earlier this year, the DOT hired two former St. Joe Co. executives who are also staunch Scott supporters to conduct an "outreach effort" to Florida's major landowners. Billy Buzzett and Chris Corr were to conduct up to 20 interviews with owners of land where the roads could go.

The pair conducted interviews with just five landowners. Buzzett and Corr cut the interviews short, turning in invoices for $15,600 despite a contract that allowed up to $106,000, said DOT spokesman Dick Kane.

Companies interviewed are supportive of Future Corridors, which could help with development projects they are planning.

• Foley Timber and Land Co. is a private company based in Perry, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. It owns 562,000 acres in Florida, making it the state's largest landowner. In Taylor County, it plans to build 25,000 homes on 30,000 acres, and commercial and industrial development on another 14,500.

• Plum Creek is a real estate trust based in Seattle that owns 520,000 acres in Florida. It wants to transform 500 acres in Columbia County into a giant freight rail "gateway" project.

• Rayonier Inc. is a Jacksonville real estate trust that owns 420,609 acres in northern Florida, primarily along the east coast. It has two large-scale projects in east Nassau County north of Jacksonville, marshland that could be aided by a loop between Interstate 95 and Interstate 10. One project is slated for 24,000 homes and includes malls, office parks and industrial space.

• Deseret Ranches is a Florida-based land investment firm and cattle ranch operation owned by the Mormon Church. It has 290,000 acres in Central Florida, including Hillsborough, Orange, Osceola and Brevard counties. It is planning a large-scale project of nearly 30,000 homes in Osceola County.

• The Mosaic Co., which is based in Plymouth, Minn., is the world's leading producer of concentrated phosphate. It owns 250,000 acres in Central Florida and is planning its first development project in southeastern Polk County on 16,000 acres once used for phosphate mining. Called Streamsong Resort, it would include a hotel with 250 rooms and two golf courses.

Representatives from four of the five companies reached by the Times/Herald confirmed that they support the concept of Future Corridors, but would want more details before endorsing it or selling off land.

More skeptical of the project are environmental groups that were not interviewed by Corr or Buzzett.

Representatives from several groups met for three hours on Nov. 8 with DOT officials to discuss Future Corridors. Some, like Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy, say they are open to the project as long as existing transportation corridors like Interstates 75, 95 and 4 are maintained and expanded first.

"You don't want to determine that there will be a future corridor without going through a careful assessment of what can be done to existing corridors," Bowman said. "How this fits into enhancing our current corridors is a bit unclear."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

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