TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist gave his controversial Big Sugar land deal a political and pragmatic repackaging Wednesday, announcing that the state would buy less than half of U.S. Sugar's sprawling fields for Everglades restoration, but at a third of the price.
The governor said the new offer — $533 million for 72,500 acres of citrus groves and sugar fields, with a 10-year state option to buy more — would cut taxpayer costs, save 1,700 farming jobs in Clewiston, preserve his goal of creating a crucial Everglades corridor and still remain the largest conservation land buy in state history.
"Even though it's scaled down, it's still the biggest ever,'' he said. "It's about twice the size of Orlando.''
But it's also not much more than half the amount environmentalists contend is needed to supply the Everglades with plentiful clean water and divert polluted runoff strangling Lake Okeechobee and rivers on both coasts.
Tom Van Lent, chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, acknowledged the initial buy would fall short of the now-dead $1.34 billion bid to buy U.S. Sugar's entire 181,000 acres, but credited Crist for preserving what would still rank as a "significant accomplishment.''
"Overall, it is a big step toward restoring the Everglades and estuaries,'' he said.
The state's slumping economy and plummeting tax revenues forced the major makeover, the third since Crist announced the blockbuster proposal in June. But it also includes changes clearly intended to address criticism of the deal.
Lawmakers, rival growers, Glades community leaders and the Miccosukee Tribe had attacked the deal as an expensive corporate bailout, charging it would ravage rural economies and towns, saddle the South Florida Water Management District with budget-busting debt and pick the pockets of taxpayers in 16 counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, who pay the district's bills.
Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, said the new deal was now "potentially affordable'' and toughened a sweetheart lease that rival growers contend would have given U.S. Sugar a competitive edge. The new deal would triple the $50-an-acre annual rate U.S. Sugar was to pay to farm its own land until restoration projects are built.
But she argued that the state was still overpaying at $7,350 an acre, didn't have a plan or cost estimate for projects, and that the scattered parcels would not provide what Crist and environmentalists had promised — a "connection'' between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
"You're giving a company $500 million to stay on the land for the next seven years with evergreen renewals. They're probably going to farm the land for the next 20 years, and you're not going to build anything until then,'' she said.
Miccosukee tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen echoed the concerns, saying the deal would extend damaging sugar farming, divert scarce money from other projects and delay Everglades restoration by years.
"We're abandoning reservoirs now for reservoirs later,'' he said.
Flanked by a giant photo and two oil paintings of the River of Grass, Crist acknowledged what lawmakers and other critics had said for months — the faltering economy made the megadeal impossible. The governor said the downsizing would still secure key pieces and provide the option to phase in more as the economy improves.
Over the next 10 years, the state could buy all 107,500 remaining acres owned by U.S. Sugar — though even environmentalists are targeting only about half that land. Overall, they aim to convert about 120,000 acres into reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes.
Under the new terms, which must be approved by U.S. Sugar's board of directors and the water district's governing board, the company would continue using the 72,500 acres for at least seven years or until a water project is ready for construction.
The state could take 32,000 acres of citrus groves with a year's notice and up to 10,000 acres of cane with two years' notice — giving the state the option of earlier access to four times as much acreage as the previous deal.
U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said the company could continue farming and operating as it has "with economic certainty'' while negotiating with the state to buy the remaining land in years ahead. The company has also agreed to refuse to sell its land closest to Lake Okeechobee, which is sought by other buyers, for the next three years, and the state will have the first option if U.S. Sugar gets any other offers for the remaining property for the next 10 years.
There are still many questions — including whether Florida Crystals, the region's second largest grower and owner of the most attractive swaths for restoration projects, will eventually play a role. The company issued a short release saying it was reviewing the deal and continuing to work with the governor.
There are also questions about securing financing, with the bond issue facing legal challenges that could push any closing beyond U.S. Sugar's September deadline. But Coker said the deadline could be flexible if both sides agreed.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.