Monday, November 20, 2017
News Roundup

DEP drops 1,000 acres from list of surplus land

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Some of it was underwater. Some of it had title problems. For one reason or another, Florida officials have now taken more than 1,000 acres off their controversial list of 5,000 acres of possible surplus park land to sell.

The state's ultimate goal: raise $50 million by selling lower-value land and then use that money to buy land that is more important to save. However, according to Department of Environmental Protection state lands division director Susan Grandin, they are likely to fall short.

"The goal of getting to $50 million is great," Grandin said in a news conference Thursday. "But I don't think that's going to be the case."

Grandin announced that analysis of the list's first draft had resulted in the removal of about 1,000 acres, leaving about 4,000 still under consideration for sale. Among the parcels saved from the auction block are 15 acres of tropical hardwood hammocks in the Florida Keys.

Still on the list, though, is the largest piece, 2,600 acres of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County. The Hilochee land, which was purchased to protect the aquifer, lies in the Green Swamp, which forms the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hillsborough and Withlacoochee. That 2,600-acre section has other importance, too.

"The only potential crossing of Interstate 4 for black bear and Florida panther populations has been identified … where these properties intersect the I-4 right of way," Audubon Florida noted in a letter this week to the DEP.

The Keys property was removed for one major reason, Grandin said. Since 1975, the Keys have been what is formally known as an "Area of Critical State Concern," which means the state is keeping a tight rein on growth due to concerns about hurricane evacuation. DEP officials and their contractors missed that when they drew up the initial list, Grandin said.

However, the Green Swamp is also an Area of Critical State Concern, dating back to the days after Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and there was pressure to fill in the swamp for development. Asked why the Green Swamp land remained on the list while the Keys parcels were taken off, Grandin said, "We are looking at all of that."

Other land was knocked off because the state didn't have sole title or other reasons. Several parcels in Cayo Costa State Park in Boca Grande were dry land when purchased, she said, but beach erosion has now put them underwater.

She said there would be a public discussion of the list today at the DEP's Acquisition and Restoration Council meeting in Tallahassee, and then public hearings in Naples, Melbourne, Orlando and Pensacola this month and in October. Any sales must be approved by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, most likely sometime next year.

Grandin promised greater access to the information behind the decisions, such as posting on the DEP website the analysis of each beach, forest and swamp being considered for sale.

Last month, when the DEP released its initial list of about 160 parcels that might be sold, it sparked questions, protests and some outrage.

"I was very heartened to see people actually care about our conservation lands in Florida," Grandin said. She also praised media coverage of the controversy as "wonderful."

For decades, Florida set the national standard for acquiring conservation land. The Legislature created programs with names like Florida Forever and invested $300 million a year in them, allowing the state to assemble about 3 million acres. But during the economic meltdown, funding dried up.

This year, according to Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper, environmental advocates tried to persuade Scott administration officials to budget $100 million to revive Florida Forever. Instead, Scott's DEP proposed — and the Legislature approved — $20 million in cash and up to $50 million funded by the sale of state-owned lands.

The rules say that any new land that is bought should be for springs protection, water quality or buffering a military base, and not for saving habitat for panthers or other endangered species.

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

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