Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

List of surplus state park land raises questions, outrage

From a 4-acre slice that is supposed to be part of the Pinellas Trail to more than 2,600 acres in Central Florida's Green Swamp, state officials are trying to figure out whether to post "for sale" signs on some 5,000 acres of beaches, forests and wetlands that were originally acquired to preserve them from being developed.

Their goal: raise $50 million by selling lower-value state land and use that money to buy land that is more important to save.

The state Department of Environmental Protection just released a list of about 160 properties that could be sold, including 7 acres of the Withlacoochee State Trail in Pasco County.

Rather than raising money, though, right now the list is raising a lot of questions and objections.

"I don't understand why some of these got on this list," said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "We need to review our reasons for acquiring those properties. If they're still serving that purpose, then they shouldn't be on that list."

To William and Margaret Broussard, the DEP's list is an insult. They helped raise money to buy 1,100 acres of land in Polk County that is now a state park that bears the name of their late son. Now 5 acres of Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park is on the surplus list.

"It's an outrage," Margaret Broussard said. "The state itself picked those parcels. … To me the entire concept of selling off conservation land to buy conservation land is not a good idea."

DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said the list the agency posted online is preliminary and that nothing will be put up for sale until after public hearings this fall and a vote by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, perhaps in January at the earliest. Even then, local governments and universities would get the first shot at bidding on any property before the state would open it up to developers, he said.

Some parcels have already been removed from the list, including one that was viewed as important to the cleanup of the polluted Indian River Lagoon, Gillespie said.

Nevertheless, he said, it has sparked considerable criticism — not all of it well-informed. "People are coming up and saying, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you're selling an entire park!' " Gillespie said.

Part of the problem, say critics, is that the DEP is in too big of a hurry to do the job right. Even the group charged with compiling the surplus list thought the agency was rushing through the job, said a transcript of the Surplus Lands Initiative's Technical Advisory Group meeting July 15.

The group also fretted that it wouldn't be able to come up with $50 million worth of land. In fact, a consultant working with the group warned that, on the first try, it had fallen short.

"She said, 'This doesn't come up to $50 million, so you need to reset your criteria,' " said Tim Ahern of the Trust for Public Land, which was hired by the DEP to help create the list, working with the real estate firm of Cushman & Wakefield.

The largest parcel consists of 2,600 acres in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County. It lies in the Green Swamp, the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hills­borough and Withlacoochee, and was purchased to protect the aquifer. State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission assistant executive director Eric Sutton said that one may not stay on the list.

However, Paul Cozzie of the Pinellas County parks department said the 4-acre Pinellas Trail parcel was purchased to provide access to a big-box store that was never built. Because it has never been connected to the rest of the trail, it could be sold with no complaints.

Florida once set the national standard for acquiring conservation land. Twenty years ago, property rights advocates contended that regulations and lawsuits were not the right way to save environmentally sensitive land. Instead, they said, the state should buy the land outright.

The Legislature created programs with names like Florida Forever and invested $300 million a year in them. Florida assembled some 3 million acres of swamps, forests and beaches that won national awards and attracted millions of tourists.

But during the state's economic meltdown, funding for Florida Forever dried up. Some in the Legislature complained that the state had taken too much land off the tax rolls. Local, state and federal agencies own more than 25 percent of Florida's 34.2 million acres — although that also includes prisons, military bases, college campuses and other uses.

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 other state-owned lands. And the rules say that any new land that is bought should be for springs protection, water quality or buffering a military base — not saving habitat for panthers or other endangered species.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are pushing a constitutional amendment for a vote in 2014 that would require the state to set aside $100 million a year for buying environmentally sensitive land — without selling off any in return.

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

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