For the past two years, as its executives were taking Florida politicians on secret hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas, U.S. Sugar was planning for a massive change in its business plan.
The company, which has been growing and processing sugar cane in South Florida since the 1930s, has mapped out a way to turn itself into one of Florida's biggest developers.
On 67 square miles of sugar land southwest of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers of Florida, another sugar company with adjoining property, have joined forces on a project that would plop down 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of stores, offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings amid the rural landscape.
But the land that U.S. Sugar wants to designate for development is the same land that Florida officials have an option to buy for Everglades restoration. If the sugar companies' development plan is approved, that land would be worth a lot more — making it more expensive for the state to purchase.
"It's good for business but bad for taxpayers," said David Crawford of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.
U.S. Sugar says this is not a problem, because it's not inclined to develop its land any time soon — only if the market dictates such development would be worthwhile. If approved, the plan could be developed any time before 2060, but some land would remain designated for agriculture, the company said.
"U.S. Sugar is not getting out of agriculture, now nor in the foreseeable future," company spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said. "What we are doing is making good long-range planning decisions for our business and providing good long-range economic opportunity and job creation for Hendry County."
U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers aren't the only sugar companies eyeing a future in land development in Hendry County.
In land-use planning parlance, their proposal is called a "sector plan,'' which requires a simpler approval process than the more involved "development of regional impact.'' But environmentalists say that such a major plan would reverberate beyond economically depressed Hendry County.
Texas-based King Ranch, the largest member of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, came up with its own 23,000-acre sector plan two years ago, calling for nearly 23,000 homes, plus hotels, offices, stores and warehouses. That plan was approved this year. The difference between the two is that the U.S. Sugar land was deemed important to the future of Everglades restoration.
The South Florida Water Management District holds an option to acquire 100 percent of U.S. Sugar's land through October 2020. The water district, a state agency, also has an option to acquire only 47,000 acres that expires in October 2015.
At this point, water district spokesman Randy Smith said, the U.S. Sugar bid for a Hendry County development plan does not affect the state's option to buy the same property. As for the higher price tag, Smith said, "the district doesn't speculate on future land costs."
Proposed land buy
The option to buy is a legacy of what once seemed the biggest Everglades land deal ever.
In 2008, a judge ruled that the sugar industry's long-standing practice of dumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee was illegal and a state agency voted to forbid the practice. U.S. Sugar lobbyists went to see then-Gov. Charlie Crist seeking his help.
Crist proposed the state buy all the company's 187,000 acres and various assets and use it for Everglades restoration projects. But in 2010, amid the economic meltdown, the state bought just 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million, with an option to buy the rest later.
Recently the idea of buying that land has cropped up again as a solution to a long-standing problem with Lake Okeechobee.
Whenever the lake's water level reaches a certain high point, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases some of it along canals that carry the polluted water to estuaries on the gulf coast and the Atlantic coast. Those releases cause algae blooms, fish kills and other woes that are bad for the tourism and fishing industries.
Instead of dumping that water to the east and west, coastal residents and environmental activists have called for the state to buy the remaining sugar land and use it to route the water south, as it flowed when the Everglades operated naturally.
The state has not pursued that solution.
In 2011, a year after the state purchased some of its land, U.S. Sugar bought a hunting lease on the famous King Ranch in Texas from Joe Marlin Hilliard Sr., who has helped run family-owned Hilliard Brothers since 1961.
Sugar executives began inviting Florida politicians for hunting trips there. Among those who have attended: Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli.
A Times/Herald analysis of campaign records found that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.
Also, during the 2014 election cycle, U.S. Sugar and its officers, lobbyists and corporate entities have contributed $2.2 million to Republican state candidates and $132,000 to Democrats.
But U.S. Sugar, Republican Party officials and the politicians who took the trips have all been reluctant to say anything about the hunting trips, which were not mentioned in Scott's or Putnam's official schedules, or disclosed under the King Ranch name in RPOF documents.
This silence foreclosed any scrutiny of whether the sugar industry is using these trips to influence decisions on such issues as the future of the Everglades or state water policy.
A year after buying its hunting lease, U.S. Sugar began working on its development plan. Sanchez said company officials did not discuss its development plan with any of those elected officials who took the trips.
"I'm sure we probably talked to some of our local (elected) folks, but not the folks you're thinking of," she said.
She said they did not coordinate the plan with officials from King Ranch. The vice president in charge of King Ranch's Florida lands is Mitch Hutchcraft, whom Gov. Scott appointed to the South Florida Water Management District governing board a month after Scott's trip to King Ranch. Hutchcraft would not discuss his company's plans, instead repeatedly referring a reporter to the documents the company filed.
When asked if he had met with Scott during the governor's hunting trip, Hutchcraft said, "You have a good day now."
Scott has also refused to say whether he met Hutchcraft at King Ranch.
U.S. Sugar's Sanchez said the development plan was a response to repeated requests by Hendry County officials for projects that would diversify and revive the local economy. Sugar is such a mainstay that the county seat of Clewiston is known as "America's Sweetest City."
Five years after the official end of the recession, Hendry remains the only one of Florida's 67 counties that struggles with double-digit unemployment.
So far the U.S. Sugar sector plan has had smooth sailing. When the Hendry County Commission was scheduled to vote on it in late August, three environmental activists stood up to protest making this major change in such an important landscape. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve it.
"It was all over in about 15 minutes," said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. "I was astounded. There was no discussion."
Sector plans like this one must also be approved by the state Department of Environmental Opportunity. So far the agency, which during Scott's administration replaced the less business-friendly Department of Community Affairs, has not rejected a single sector plan.
To Crawford of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, though, putting so much development on the drawing board for the future is "totally unnecessary," There's already more than enough development planned to accommodate future growth, he said.
He also contended that grafting plans like this one onto existing county plans for future growth will lead to urban sprawl, while shutting down objections from surrounding counties that will face more demands on their roads, water and other resources.
"The way things are going," he said, "we won't have anyplace left to plant food because we've paved over it."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.