An attempt to preserve almost a third of the Starkey Ranch near Trinity was scuttled last week by the state Department of Environmental Protection, putting the future of the 2,500-acre ranch in doubt and underscoring how Gov. Rick Scott's administration is putting the brakes on state land-buying programs.
The Starkey family first began negotiating a sale with the Southwest Florida Water Management District in January 2010, and the deal for an 800-acre parcel was slated for approval at the May meeting of the district's governing board.
State officials had already blessed the purchase in a May 19 letter. But the deal was pulled from the May 24 meeting, and the department reversed itself in a letter sent Wednesday.
Officials "determined the parcel is not critical to the (water) district's core mission, therefore I am unable to authorize this acquisition," wrote Mike Long, head of the DEP's state lands program.
A spokeswoman said in a statement that the department took a second look at the deal because it is just getting used to a new level of oversight for water districts' land buys.
"Staff realized the primary core of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve had already been acquired and determined this acquisition is not a critical acquisition needing to be purchased at this time," department spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz said.
The 20,000-acre preserve began in 1975 when the late Jay B. Starkey Sr. sold thousands of acres at a sharply reduced price to create what is considered the jewel of Pasco's park system. Over the years, he sold or donated more than half his holdings. His family added more land, and now more than 80 percent of the old ranch is part of the park. State officials added the 6,500-acre Serenova tract in 1996 to compensate for wetland destruction in building the Suncoast Parkway.
Trey Starkey, grandson of the late rancher, said he was disappointed the deal was torpedoed. As a taxpayer, he understands why the governor wants to curtail land buying, but he said exceptions should be made for environmentally sensitive land at good prices. One of the problems with the deal, he said, might have been that Scott didn't give officials clear direction.
"But maybe there is clarity in the policy, it's don't buy any more land," he said.
Several other recent moves show Scott exerting more control over the five state water districts, which regulate every aspect of water use, from utility pumping to wetlands development.
In his initial budget proposal, Scott sought to cut the water districts' budgets by 25 percent. The Legislature passed a bill ordering the agency commonly known as Swiftmud to cut its taxes by 36 percent — in effect, setting the independent agency's tax rate for it.
At Scott's behest, Swiftmud's board voted to abolish its seven basin boards, volunteer-run taxing districts that oversaw everything from water supply to conservation projects.
And last month, Swiftmud's longtime executive director Dave Moore resigned, with some observers speculating he was pushed out from Tallahassee. Moore, who offered to remain in office until a replacement is found, said Scott's influence did not factor into his decision.
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The environmental agency's decision leaves the Starkey Ranch in flux. In September 2008, the family won approval to build a mega-development on the last piece of its ranch near Trinity.
But the timing of the development plan couldn't have been worse. The proposal called for 4,200 homes, office space, a hotel and a movie theater on 2,500 acres off State Road 54. A sputtering housing market spiked the plan, and now the Starkeys are trying to regroup.
Trey Starkey said the family had planned to conserve the 800-acre parcel, sell off a few smaller pieces and hold on to the rest until the economy rebounds. The old development plan likely will be scrapped. One possibility is building smaller homes to meet a demand for people who "don't want to be house rich and life poor."
The family had long planned to set aside most of the parcel for conservation, and the development plan called for much of it to remain green space or wetlands. Swiftmud officials praised the land for providing a buffer between future development and the Starkey preserve, and for helping recharge the underground aquifer.
"It's really just pretty property, Starkey said. "It's got a nice lake, full of fish. There's a little bit of terrain to it, a nice variety of habitat."
He added: "It's a good piece to preserve and add to that park. Should that not happen, something else will happen with it."
The agency proposed buying the land for almost $7 million, less than two appraisals. The money would provide a bridge for the family before it could develop the rest of its land, but Starkey said the deal included "favorable pricing" for Swiftmud, even in today's depressed land market.
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Tallahassee's review of the Starkey land deal deviated from previous practices. The new rules were handed down in an April 25 edict from Melissa Meeker, one of three top deputies at the department.
The memo notes that Florida "has been extremely progressive in its land acquisition programs." But the state "now finds itself facing substantial financial constraints and must prioritize its limited resources."
"Specifically," she wrote, "I would like to ensure that land acquisition and the associated expenditures reflect the Governor's policies and can be accomplished with current and projected funding."
Some of the drop in projected funding was caused by Scott himself. When the governor signed the $69.1 billion state budget late last month, he vetoed $305 million in spending authority for environmental land buys. That program depended on selling surplus lands. Now, proceeds can't be used to conserve more land and will be put in budgetary reserves.
The memo instructed water district officials to ensure land buying programs matched administration policy. Before any new deals were made, officials had to thoroughly describe the land, explain why the sale is critical to the district's core functions and justify the closing price.
Previously, district governing boards approved a sale and then sent a resolution to the department for final approval.
That resolution "captures some of the same information, but not to this level of detail," said Eric Sutton, director of Swiftmud's land resources department.
The water district sent a five-page description of the parcel, along with several maps. A few days later, the department praised the property as satisfying several key goals.
"This is far more difficult than any other deal we've ever done with Swiftmud," Starkey said, noting the added requirements from state officials. "It's like going from 12-year-old baseball to the major leagues."
But apparently that level of detail wasn't enough. In Wednesday's denial letter, Long, of the DEP, said the tract had "several desirable attributes," but "it is crucial that we all be strategic and purposeful in identifying those lands we deem critical to purchase."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.