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DEP ends effort to sell $50 million worth of parks and preserved land

Nine months after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection launched a review of its conservation lands looking for $50 million worth that it could sell as surplus, the agency is ending the program without having sold a single acre.

"The department will not continue with this large-scale conservation land sale effort," DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie said Monday.

The effort stirred up statewide controversy and apparently cost the department two top officials without raising a penny of the $50 million the Legislature had promised.

By ending the surplus land review without a single sale, the DEP has exposed "the myth that there are thousands and thousands of acres of unneeded land" in the state park system, Charles Lee of Audubon Florida said. That belief among legislators "is just hokum," he said.

The DEP revealed the end of the program in an obliquely worded news release sent out after 6 p.m. Friday, although Gillespie said that was not done to hide the news.

Without mentioning that none of the park land was ever cleared for sale, the release talked of shifting the focus to trying to sell off property that's not part of a state park or preserve, such as old hospitals and unneeded prisons. One parcel on the new must-sell list: the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, which closed in 2012.

In Friday's release, DEP secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. praised his staff for the effort they put in, making no mention of the hard feelings stirred up. Gillespie said he did not know if Vinyard consulted Gov. Rick Scott about pulling the plug or how much the review had cost taxpayers.

The release said the land hunt was worthwhile for DEP because it "has significantly increased its understanding of the land owned by the state."

For decades, through state programs such as Florida Forever, the Legislature invested $300 million a year in buying environmentally sensitive land. During the recent economic meltdown, the Legislature cut off the funding. Some lawmakers called for getting rid of some of the land.

Last spring, the DEP proposed, and the Legislature approved, including in the state budget $20 million in cash for buying land, plus up to $50 million more raised by selling off unneeded park land. To do that requires declaring the property to be no longer needed for conservation, despite the "Forever" part of the program name.

DEP and other state agencies scrambled for land that could be declared surplus and sold. In July, a group called the Surplus Lands Initiative's Technical Advisory Group met to go over the first draft and fretted that the DEP was rushing the job.

In early September, DEP officials posted an initial list of 169 properties covering about 5,000 acres. Within weeks they had cut it to 4,000 acres, acknowledging that some land was underwater or had title problems. They also acknowledged they would never come up with $50 million worth.

"It was flawed from the beginning," Lee said. "If they'd have gotten $15 million from the first list, I'd have been real surprised."

The largest parcel, at 2,600 acres, was part of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in the Green Swamp. Records obtained by the Times showed that its owner, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, had proposed it after what its staff called a "fairly quick and coarse review." The agency subsequently asked DEP to remove it.

The surplus park sale proposal stirred up strong opposition among not just environmental activists but also local residents and government officials in the areas. Both the Polk County Commission and the Lee County Commission voted to oppose the sale of preserved land in their areas.

The review was being led by the director of the DEP's Division of State Lands, Susan Grandin, who had held that post for 15 months. She handed in her resignation Feb. 11, saying she needed to care for her ailing mother. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Grandin's resignation followed the Jan. 31 resignation of her second-in-command, Stephanie Leeds. A nine-year DEP veteran, Leeds wrote in her resignation that she believed "you would be better served by another more willing to fulfill the current vision for the Division of State Lands." She did not explain and could not be reached for comment.

When the Times reported on those resignations two weeks ago, Gillespie said their departure would not hinder the continuing land review.

During a January legislative committee hearing, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called the whole process "a disaster" and "a charade." But last week House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, defended the Legislature's command to DEP to sell surplus park land: "In concept, we all love it. I mean, how much land is enough? How much land do you need?"

During the nine months the DEP spent fruitlessly looking for land to sell, it also spent $10 million acquiring more land.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

DEP ends effort to sell $50 million worth of parks and preserved land 03/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2014 9:47pm]
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