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State's purchase of land from senator's family criticized

TALLAHASSEE — The net worth of the Florida Senate's budget chief grew fivefold after the state purchased part of her family's ranch with the help of a program whose funding she oversees.

Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, is a shareholder of the Mabry Carlton Ranch. She is also the Senate's second-in-command who oversees the state budget. That job includes coordinating the state's recent budget cuts but also designating money for programs such as Florida Forever, the state's land-buying plan.

In December, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Sarasota County used $20-million from Florida Forever toward a $51-million deal with the Mabry Carlton Ranch east of Myakka River State Park.

The state acquired 4,756 acres, which contribute to the area's water supply and are considered environmentally sensitive and which the water district had already purchased development rights for. The deal also included development rights to prevent houses from being built on another 7,630 acres.

Now the deal, which appears to have followed standard protocol and has been reported by local media, has drawn new criticism from the Florida Democratic Party, which questions why Carlton didn't note a conflict of interest with the Senate president.

The criticism comes as Carlton, who is term limited, is playing an active role in the District 23 Republican primary. Democrats hope to win the seat.

"As Senate appropriations chair, we trusted Sen. Carlton with our tax dollars, and she turned around to write herself a check for millions of dollars," said Eric Jotkoff, Florida Democratic Party spokesman.

Carlton, 44, disagrees. She said she "absolutely" did not use her position in any way to influence the deal. She said her mother, Barbara Carlton, president of the ranch company, started negotiations with the water district and that she became involved once her mother's estate planning became an issue.

Eric Sutton, assistant land resources director for the water district, confirmed Carlton's account and said negotiations began in late 2005 or early 2006. Carlton became the Senate budget chief in November 2006.

Carlton said Friday she wasn't aware that part of the $300-million set aside for Florida Forever in 2007 helped fund the deal.

She said she saw the land deal as an extension of a decadelong relationship her family's company has had with the district.

"It's been a long-standing relationship through the years, all of which has been in the public record," said Carlton. Her 2007 financial disclosure form shows her net worth jumped to $14.8-million, up from $2.4-million in 2006, because of increased value of her ranch stock.

The deal for the ranch land is part of a growing trend for purchases of environmental land. The Republican-led Legislature and Cabinet have embraced the idea of buying development rights as a new conservation technique to spread land-buying dollars. Republicans like that open space is preserved and the land remains on the tax rolls, but the state doesn't have to maintain it. However, such conservation often doesn't allow public access and lowers a property's value for tax purposes.

The December purchase was hailed as the largest such land deal for Sarasota County's environmental land program. The County Commission debated the deal for more than two hours Nov. 27 before approving it 4 to 1. Two commissioners wondered aloud during the meeting if the deal was worth it.

Carlton noted her family actually received less than the four appraisals the government obtained that served as the basis for negotiations.

The balance of the deal's financing came from Sarasota County, which spent $31.6-million from its environmental land program that is funded with a voter-approved quarter-mill property tax. The land-buying program had identified the properties as a priority.

Not all Democrats are critical. Sarasota County Democrat Jono Miller, who serves on the county panel that recommends environmental land purchases, said he believes the purchase was a "great addition that's going to help safeguard land in the future."

State's purchase of land from senator's family criticized 08/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 3:26pm]
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